Less is More
Martin Scorsese focuses in The Aviator
by Mike Gibson
Somewhere around 1980, director Martin Scorsese became enthralled with making Big movies. Tightly focused blasts of adrenaline like his ‘70s-era Mean Streets and Taxi Driver were jettisoned, for better or worse, in favor of sprawling epics. Nowadays, the hallmarks of a Scorsese film are big stars (De Niro, Pesci, DiCaprio, et al.), a big budget (more than $100 million for Gangs of New York), and epic length.
But most of all, Scorsese left behind the humble aspirations and small-time hooliganism of Travis Bickell and Johnny Boy, and fell in love with Big subjects. Consider, for example, his Mafia studies in Goodfellas and Casino; his decade-spanning biography on larger-than-life pugilist Jake la Motta in Raging Bull; or his take on that Jesus fellow in Last Temptation of Christ.
Small wonder, then, that his latest film, The Aviator, tackles what may be his biggest subject yet, in the form of the late, eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes—demented recluse, movie mogul, record-setting pilot, captain of industry, Vegas impresario, ravisher of Hollywood starlets. When he died in 1976, Hughes had crammed more living into his 71 years than it seems possible to chronicle in 10 movies, much less a single, surprisingly breezy 169-minute flick.
The simple of fact of Hughes’ own essential Big-ness could easily have worked against The Aviator; Scorcese’s last big picture, 2002’s Gangs of New York, was a Big Mess, a well-intentioned muddle that tried, unsuccessfully, to knit a revenge epic, a love story, and innumerable coexistent historical threads into a single narrative. Fortunately for us, Scorsese has since remembered a few tricks from the earlier, more succinct era of his movie-making career. As a result, The Aviator is his most coherent film in years—focused, accessible, epic, yet wholly free of bloat.
Unlike the director of Gangs, the Scorsese of Aviator is guided by a keen sense of what to leave out. After a brief, but telling flashback to his childhood, the film begins with a very young Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio), already the inheritor of his late father’s successful Hughes Tool Co., embarking on a bold attempt at making a big-budget war picture without backing from a major Hollywood studio. In a series of vignettes that span about four years of real time, we get a concise, well-drawn portrait of Hughes the man—forceful, impulsive, profligate, paranoiac and fiercely creative.
His first film, the aforementioned 1930 war epic Hell’s Angels, was the most expensive movie of its time at $3.8 million, and its spectacular aviation scenes set the stage for Hughes’ future forays as a designer/test pilot, defense contractor, and airline mogul.
But even in encompassing all of these events, The Aviator covers only a shade more than 20 years of Hughes’ relatively long life. It’s like a well-chosen snapshot—granted, a really Big snapshot, but a snapshot nonetheless—of the manhood he rapidly grew into, and of the madman he would slowly become.
The role of Hughes constitutes DiCaprio’s heaviest lifting yet as an actor. Gone completely are any vestiges of his over-stayed teen-idol status; he does a marvelous job of capturing Hughes’ ineffable will-to-power, which was already in full blossom when he departed his native Texas for Hollywood at the tender age of 21. DiCaprio also offers us elliptical but very telling glances at the lurking madness—paranoia, intermittent reclusiveness, obsessive-compulsive tendencies—that would consume Hughes’ later years.
Hughes’ character commands so much of the movie, in fact, that many of the film’s other players seem remote by comparison. There are some exceptions, though; Alan Alda slips with an almost disturbing ease into the role of the glib, corrupt Senator who tries to derail Hughes’ ventures into the airline industry. And in the only role that even approaches the gravity of the lead, Cate Blanchett is obviously having great fun as a young Katharine Hepburn, with whom Hughes had a long relationship.
It’s conceivable that The Aviator could have been an even more intriguing film with yet a little more padding. Huge swaths of Hughes’ life—his years as a Las Vegas developer, his arrival as a billionaire, and the last, most bizarre stages of his growing mental illness—are left untouched. And of the portions that remain, some are too easily resolved. The outcome of Hughes’ battle with Congress and airline industry, for instance, was much more complicated than the movie’s shorthand depiction would have us believe. And his belated post-War test flight of the so-called “Spruce Goose”—a labored, over-priced attempt, funded by the U.S. government, at creating a massive new wartime transport plane—wasn’t exactly the moment of triumph it seems to be on screen.
But that’s okay. It’s a sign that Scorsese has learned—or maybe re-learned—a thing or two since his bloated Gangs hit theaters some two years past. Just as the succinct character studies of Travis Bickell and Johnny Boy did nearly 30 years ago, Scorcese’s Howard Hughes leaves us, at film’s end, satisfied but still a trifle hungry, yearning for just a little bit more.
December 16, 2004 • Vol. 14, No. 51
© 2004 Metro Pulse