Martin Scorsese is one of the greatest directors never to win an Oscar. He made “Raging Bull,” considered by many to be the greatest movie of the 1980s, and “GoodFellas,” which others consider the greatest movie of the 1990s. Still, he has not won an Oscar for best director.
His latest movie, “The Aviator,” comes with all the hope and hype of winning his first Oscar. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes, and it does what Scorsese does best: capture the past and give it a dynamic life in the present.
“The Aviator” takes us back to Hollywood in the ’20s and ’30s. The movie opens with a young Hughes making “Hell’s Angels,” his first movie, about the flying aces of World War I. We see Hollywood’s glamour and Hughes’ genius as he indulges in two of his passions: movie making and aviation. He makes the most expensive movie ever and begins developing a plane to break the world speed record.
Hughes is a troubled person with obsessive-compulsive tendencies—like washing his hands to the point of bleeding. As the movie progresses, Hughes gets swallowed up by his compulsions.
Hughes is also a ladies’ man who keeps young women on retainer and has affairs with starlets like Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsdale). There is never any real commitment because his determination to succeed, as well as his compulsions, drive away those that love him.
But Hughes’ real love, Scorsese declares, is flying. Hughes works to develop planes for the military during World War II, but it’s his battle to make TWA an international airline that takes up the latter half of the movie. Pan Am has an implied monopoly on international flights, and the company’s CEO, Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin), has his hand on Congress.
Trippe gives Sen. Brewster (Alan Alda) a bill that would make Pan Am the national airline of the United States and cement the monopoly. But Hughes wants TWA to be able to fly to Paris, and the bill would stop that dream. Hughes battles for his airline and his reputation.
“The Aviator” is a good movie that strains under the weight of its subject. We see few of the main characters take on more than a skeleton presence in the story. A good example is Noah Dietrich (John C. Reilly), Hughes’ accountant and friend. Dietrich comes into the story as Hughes films “Hell’s Angels,” and he walks into scenes from time to time. But he is nothing more than a suit that Hughes instructs to mortgage businesses to pay for another venture. It would have been good to learn more about this important person in Hughes’ life.
There are great performances, however. Cate Blanchett breezes on the screen as Katherine Hepburn, whom Blanchett portrays without drifting into caricature. When Hepburn tells Hughes the world doesn’t know what to do with odd people like them, it’s easy to see how Hepburn was the closest thing Hughes had to a soul mate.
Kate Beckinsdale shows Ava Gardner as a woman who knows she is beautiful and is comfortable as a beauty. She tells Hughes she can’t be bought—and all he needs to do is just buy her dinner.
Even with that, this movie is about Hughes—and especially Scorsese’s view of Hughes. Even with some characters not being fully formed, Scorsese still makes a great movie. His vision and command of the medium is beyond many of his contemporaries. If Scorsese wins the best director Oscar, it will be as much for his volume of work as for this movie.
“The Aviator” is not as good as many on Scorsese’s resume, but for him to be without an Oscar is a greater crime than him winning for this movie.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual content, nudity, language and a crash sequence.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: John Logan
Cast: Howard Hughes: Leonardo DiCaprio; Noah Dietrich: John C. Reilly; Katherine Hepburn: Cate Blanchett; Ava Gardner: Kate Beckinsale; Juan Trippe: Alec Baldwin; Sen. Brewster: Alan Alda.
The movie’s official Web site is here.