A handsome biopic of filmmaker, pilot and millionaire Howard Hughes, The Aviator could be Martin Scorsese's politest ever picture. Forget the chaotic genius of Gangs Of New York - this is conservative, well-crafted, Oscar-friendly fare; rarely bold, but extremely well-told. After inheriting great wealth, Hughes lived an extraordinary life, setting out to dominate Hollywood and the skies before becoming a notorious recluse. Leonardo DiCaprio proves an ideal choice for the tarnished American hero and while Scorsese will receive all the plaudits, he deserves great praise.
What The Aviator doesn't manage to do is convey the scale of Hughes' early achievement - how his record-breaking flight around the world made him the nation's darling - and it's arguably soft on a ruthless, incredibly selfish businessman (many of his worst excesses are left out).
"SCORSESE HAS MADE A FILM ABOUT HIMSELF"
But, then, Scorsese sympathises with the obsessed. From Mean Streets to Raging Bull to The Last Temptation Of Christ (we could go on), his characters are driven by desires beyond their own understanding and control. And the reason The Aviator, despite its narrative meandering and flaws, lingers so long in the memory may be because Scorsese has made a film about himself - a driven dreamer whose professional passion is everything. "Movies are movies Howard, not life," scolds Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett); it's something the cinema-obsessed helmer has no doubt been told infinite times.
Not that you should only see this if you too are obsessed with cinema (although it helps). At nearly three hours it's expansive but never dull, while the 20s-40s are superbly recreated, Hughes' Beverly Hills plane crash is stunning and the conclusion, which initially seems anticlimactic, is haunting. Like Hughes' flying boat The Spruce Goose, The Aviator is imposing, spectacular, and hard to get off the ground. But when it takes off, it soars.
The Aviator is released in London's West End on 26th December 2004 and in UK cinemas nationwide on 6th January 2005.