December 31, 2004

MOVIES: The Aviator (Martin Scorsese, 2004)

Martin Scorsese's The Aviator covers roughly 20 years in the life of Howard Hughes, from his 3-year struggle to make the movie Hell's Angels to his successful appearance before a Senate committee whose chairman was out to destroy him.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars, and he's quite good, especially in the early part of the movie, portraying the young, ambitious, dynamic Hughes. He's somewhat less successful later in the movie, when Hughes begins to slip into paranoia, delusion, and obsessive-compulsive behavior. (He's also struggling by that point to play older than his age, and isn't convincing.)

The Aviator makes a reasonable case that Hughes' madness is the flip side of the ambition and reckless drive that makes him successful; it's a bit facile, though, in trying to explain away that madness as the result of an overprotective, germ-phobic mother.

The movie looks spectacular, and the flight sequences are especially impressive, especially a plane crash in Beverly Hills and the flight of the enormous Hercules plane (popularly known as the "Spruce Goose").

Lots of good supporting players on hand here -- John C. Reilly as Hughes's financial advisor; Alan Alda as the senator out to destroy Hughes; Alec Baldwin as the head of Pan Am, chief rival to Hughes' TWA -- but best of all is Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn. It's a sharp, crisp performance, and very funny; her body language during the scene in which she breaks up with Hughes is impeccable.

There are flaws -- Kate Beckinsale's Ava Gardner isn't much more than decorative; the movie's too long, and it ends rather abruptly -- but in a holiday season that's been generally disappointing, this is one of the better of the big studio movies.

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