The Aviator (US 2005)

Many (male) students are still taken with Scorsese’s early de Niro/Keitel films such as Mean StreetsTaxi DriverRaging Bull and especially Goodfellas and Casino. Reputation alone will probably persuade them to watch The Aviator, but what will they make of it — and will female students start to take an interest?

The Aviator is an epic biopic, focusing on success in those two distinctively Californian businesses — aviation and Hollywood. It tells part of the story of Howard Hughes (i.e. up to the late 1940s), but younger audiences without much sense of Hughes or 30s/40s America will find the narrative a struggle. The prologue has a 10 year-old Hughes being washed by his mother and warned about the filth out there (in practice the 1913 cholera outbreak in Houston, according to Philip French in the Observer). But things happen very quickly and events flow thick and fast between 1927 and 1935 when Hughes starts breaking airspeed records. The film suggests that though he begins with the movies, Hughes’ real personal goal is to be the man who makes the fastest and the biggest aircraft imaginable.

In some ways the simplest way to define the narrative and theme of the film is to compare Hughes’ drive for business and engineering success with his failure to make durable personal relationships either with women or the men who work for him. His ‘lack’ manifests itself in the obsessive cleansing rituals and the eventual withdrawal from society. Much depends on the performances at the heart of the movie. I confess to a dread before the film at how bad Leonardo DiCaprio might be, following his miscasting in Gangs of New York. He turned out to be surprisingly good as the younger Hughes and with a beard, pretty good as the older Hughes – it was the middle years portrayal that I found difficult. Cate Blanchett impersonates Kate Hepburn so accurately, despite her different facial features, that whenever she was on screen I gave up with the narrative and just enjoyed her performance. Of course, Hepburn was a massive star (even if she was ‘box office poison’ during the mid 1930s) and it is enjoyable to revel in memories of her star performances (a golf scene reminds us of Bringing Up Baby). Kate Beckinsale has a much more difficult task in portraying Ava Gardner, partly because Gardner’s star persona largely derives from a later period. Beckinsale is rather insipid in comparison to Gardner’s flamboyant beauty. It might have been better to make her a more anonymous character – but that would then have offended the audience that knows the real story.

The climax of the narrative involves Hughes’ appearance before a House Committee investigating the monies he received during the Second World War developing aircraft that never went into production. The hostile Senator running the show (Alan Alda) has been set up by Hughes’ business rival at Pan Am who attempts to prevent Hughes and TWA challenging Pan Am’s supremacy in air transportation. The hearing offers Scorsese the opportunity for a big set piece and a critique of American capitalism. It is also something of a test case for the position the film adopts vis-a-vis Hughes as ‘hero’. It would certainly be a sequence I would use with students – not least because it brings that whole late 1940s period of witch hunts and televised congressional hearings to life.

Scorsese’s knowledge of film history is evident throughout the film and there are many great moments to pick out in Dante Ferretti’s production design. At one film premiere, Scorsese shows us the photographers literally knee deep in discarded flash bulbs which litter the red carpet and are then crushed under foot. I’m not sure, however, about the attempt to shoot whole scenes according to the prevailing Hollywood style for that point in the historical narrative. I’d have to go back and look carefully at the earlier scenes, but the one that stands out is when Scorsese switches to the colour scheme of ‘two strip’ Technicolor in which green becomes turquoise. What I at first thought were pills on Hughes’ plate turn out to be peas ­ something which becomes much more obvious when Hughes the test pilot crashes into a field of turquoise sugar beet. All of this is likely to baffle many audiences.

The Aviator is likely to end up as Scorsese’s biggest box office success (passing $100 million in the US in March 2005). It has several faults, but more triumphant successes and compared to the lack of ambition of most mainstream Hollywood films, it deserves a wider audience.

Roy Stafford, April 2005

seen at Grand Cinema, Clitheroe, Lancs

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