The Aviator (2004)

Directed by Martin Scorsese

I wasn’t around for the early or middle days of Howard Hughes but my later teens were his final years and I do remember him from then.

Actually, to clarify, I don’t remember him, I remember the Howard Hughes of media accounts.

So while I’ve learned much more about him over the years, the name Howard Hughes still conjures, firstly, the image of a crazy old man in lonely hotel room.

One of the aspects of Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator that I especially like, and that I think was a very good creative decision, was to focus in on only a portion of Hughes’ life.

The movie concentrates on the period of his creative and business ascent and success (though over this period his fortunes do have their ups and downs) and, significantly, the beginnings of his eccentricities and eventual madness.

That creative decision is further enhanced by the another creative decision, which is, in a sense, to make this a bit of a horror movie by showing Howard Hughes’ awareness of what is happening. In Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance we see Hughes terrified by what he sees is happening to himself and struggling to fight it.

So they’ve given us a story we, to a degree, already know. In particular, we know how it ends (we know the end of Hughes’ life). What we don’t know is the how. The film shows us how Howard Hughes became a success and how the end of his life began. And it becomes fascinating because of this.

At the same time, there is another aspect of the movie that gives it a bit of an odd quality, and that is its feeling of dry objectivity. I was trying to think of a way to describe this and all I could come up with was “compassionate dispassion.”

It may be more noticeable to me because I’ve been watching so many older Hollywood movies lately – films from the 1930’s and 1940’s – which are much more traditional in their storytelling approach. They are deliberately emotionally engaging. In fact, they’re insistent on it.

The Aviator is almost insistent on not being emotionally engaging. It almost wants to keep us at a distance. I think this is a deliberate choice. I think, because Hughes’ story is so outlandish in some accounts (and in many cases, in reality) and has been so mythologized, the movie wants to present his life as it actually was (or as the film sees it to have been) without any of the baggage of legend.

I would have to watch the movie again to really see how Scorsese creates this sense of objectivity.

I think it’s partly in the way the scenes are shot (framed, staged etc.), but also partly with the way it fades up and fades out on scenes almost clinically.

I’m not sure if this decision is a good thing or bad thing. I was certainly engaged by the film but I found it odd that the engagement seemed to be more cerebral than visceral. I found it a fascinating story but I’m not sure I cared one way or another about the characters. (And that’s not a critique of the performances but simply my response to how it was presented.)

In the end, I find this a curious movie. And perhaps that’s as it should be – a curious film about a curious man. It’s engaging, though not in the usual way. It looks wonderful (the images on screen are all compelling). And the performances are uniformly brilliant (my favourite is Jude Law as Errol Flynn).

Yes, the movie is a bit long but when you think of it that, too, is probably as it should be. Hughes was a man who packed a lot of living into every moment, at least during the years we see in The Aviator. The movie would have to be long just to fit the highlights in.

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