Eschewing every pitfall of the biopic genre and delving deeply into the essence of both Howard Hughes' genius and his slow burn into madness, Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator" is a film of grand scope and masterfully intimate nuance, portraying a wild young mustang of a man who lived a fast life on an epic scale.
Presenting Hughes' view of the world as one in which nothing is impossible and the most momentous, groundbreaking decisions come instantly and instinctively ("What would controlling interest in TWA cost me?"), the film's crux is not the psychosis the man is best known for today, but his gift for sparing no expense to pursue novel visions no one else could see.
"We gotta reshoot 'Hell's Angels' for sound," Hughes decides on a whim in an early scene, after having already spent four years and millions of his own dollars perfecting his first foray into filmmaking -- a World War I epic featuring dozens of biplanes in an ambitious, jaw-dropping dogfight scene, parts of which Hughes shoots from a plane he flies into the fray himself.
Scorsese's recognition of a kindred spirit gives this film a visceral vim and vigor. Focusing on Hughes' late 20s and early 30s, when he was a major force in American industry and a growing force in show business, "The Aviator" is pulsating with its subject's restless spirit, and at the heart of it is Leonardo DiCaprio, giving the most imposing -- and first entirely adult -- performance of his career.
The actor, like his character, is constantly working on several levels at once, personifying Hughes' charm (he dated movie stars like Ava Gardner and Jean Harlow, played by Kate Beckinsale and rocker Gwen Stefani), his savvy in the budding airline industry, his obsessively cutting-edge foresight in aviation design, and a constant, subtle specter of paranoia and microphobia that will eventually give way to reclusive mental illness.
In scenes like the one that finds Hughes watches dailies from the "Hell's Angels" shoot -- his face lit from the screen and all tied up in knots of purposeful dissatisfaction -- DiCaprio gives hints not only of instability growing in his mind like a tumor, but also of the fact that Hughes can feel it growing.
In nightclubs he orders "Milk please, in the bottle, with the cap still on it," knowing how crazy that sounds. He fights the urge to wash his hands again and again (in an almost masturbatory fashion) but loses the battle every time. His eyes blink feverishly when he's under pressure. He squeezes his knees absentmindedly. He begins repeating words and phrases compulsively and clasps his hand over his mouth, desperate to make himself stop.
But Scorsese doesn't make a show of any of this behavior until the madness cannot be ignored and threatens to overcome Hughes. The gradual decent is part of the story's organic flow, as are Hughes' daredevil spirit as a pilot (he crashes many of his own experimental planes, once with a terrifying outcome that helps kick his phobias into high gear) and his eccentric romance with Katherine Hepburn, played as a scene-stealing, upper-crust force of nature by the amazing Cate Blanchett.
Her deliberately fictional characterization is a witty, prickly-sweet, ingenious amalgam of Hepburn's most piquant and charming screen personas, and while the film is spectacular in many ways, it's Blanchett people will be talking about as they leave the theater.
It is a testament to Scorsese's brilliance that "The Aviator" can contain such a performance while hitting every important and infamous highlight of Hughes' most pivotal period -- designing Jane Russell's cantilever bra for "The Outlaw," the resulting battle with the motion picture censorship board, the fight against Pam Am's attempt to monopolize international air traffic and smear Hughes' name (while taking advantage of his mental ailments), Hughes turning the tables on crooked officials in a senate hearing on corruption -- all without feeling encyclopedic or hackneyed for a single moment. The director even picks the perfect moment in the inevitable downward spiral to leave the film, and the character, hanging on by a very thin thread.
Writer John Logan ("Gladiator," "The Last Samurai") does much better work here than he ever has, couching his story in the splendor and spectacle of 1930s Hollywood but keeping it grounded in deep-seated emotions. Composer Howard Shore provides a terrific tension through a score crackling with snappy castanets and plucked cellos. And Scorsese brings it all together with gorgeous, surreal cinematic quality that unpeels the intellect-wrapped instability of Hughes' mind like layers of an onion -- and yet he's able to bring Hughes and the film back out to reality at will.
"The Aviator" is a film in which actors, director, composer, cinematographer, editor -- and even the characters -- are at the top of their game, and the results are as sensational as anything Howard Hughes himself could ever have dreamed.