The Aviator

The Aviator gets it right. That’s all there is to it. Masterfully directed, intelligently written, beautifully acted, and always engaging, The Aviator is a true Hollywood movie. It soars, it entertains, it makes you swoon and cringe, and when all is said and done, you leave the theater feeling like you haven’t wasted three hours of your life.

I’m not a big fan of Leonardo DiCaprio, but damned if he doesn’t just rock my socks as a young Howard Hughes, a man so full of spit and vinegar anyone in the first three rows better be wearing a raincoat or tossing a salad. Under Martin Scorsese’s affectionate direction (he literally embraces everything on the screen), DiCaprio becomes the maverick entrepreneur turned movie maker turned aviation pioneer, perfecting his every nuance and tick. This isn’t a performance or even an impersonation. DiCaprio becomes Hughes.

The life of Howard Hughes was extremely complicated, so Logan and Scorsese wisely concentrate on his early days in Hollywood, his fascination with breaking the air speed record, and finally his desire to take on TWA as the king of the skies. While we aren’t treated to the later years where phobias and mental health issues took their toll, Logan’s script does examine the events that might have laid the groundwork. DiCaprio is at his best when he begins tackling these demons, real or imagined.

Hughes had plenty of demons in his life, and one great compatriot in actress Katherine Hepburn, radiantly played by Cate Blanchett. A woman of wealth and breeding, Hepburn was also something of a tomboy, and enjoyed the spirited Hughes, even if also meant dealing with his evil spirits. I’m not sure how accurate The Aviator depicts their romance, but on screen, played by these actors, there’s a real sense of love and friendship. When Hughes takes Hepburn flying and then allows her to take over the wheel, if there were any more electricity in the air the plane would explode.

The Aviator must have been a dream come true for Scorsese, a movie preservationist whose love of old Hollywood is unabashed. Scorsese’s love affair carries over onto the screen. Every frame of The Aviator feels like a Valentine. How marvelous to recreate the classic landmarks, looks, stars, and even tone of the era. The Aviator is a real Hollywood movie, larger-than-life in scale, yet grounded by dynamic performances and meaningful dialogue.

The filmmakers manage to pack quite a punch into three hours, beginning with Hughes’ first foray into Hollywood, the expensive, epic Hells Angels, and ending with the only flight of his expensive floating boat eventually nicknamed The Spruce Goose. His pursuit of the skies, air records, actresses, and corrupt government officials fill in the gaps, and not one stop on this journey feels like a pee break. Every conversation, event, specifically chosen and penned by Logan to personify Hughes. Logan idolizes Hughes, but rarely puts him on a pedestal.

Which makes this DiCaprio’s bravest performance. With his slicked-back hair and strong jaw, he looks like Hughes, but isn’t afraid to show us the ugliness inside. When Hughes suffers a breakdown in a screening room, stripping down to naked flesh, DiCaprio even goes further. He exposes the vulnerable boy hiding inside the body of a man.

Martin and Howard

Scorsese’s Hughes Biography Soars


Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, John C. Reilly, Kate Beckinsale, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, Jude Law, Ian Holm, Gwen Stefani. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Rated PG-13. 170 Minutes.


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