Although The Aviator seems more Scorsese flick than biopic, there’s no getting around the fact that its ostensible subject is 20 or so years in the life of Howard Hughes, the famously mysterious character who thrived for a time (from the late 1920s to the early 1950s) in multiple high-profile roles—movie mogul, aviation designer and test pilot, visionary airline owner, world-class womanizer.
There’s plenty of sensational interest in the basic facts of Hughes’ public career, but even this thumbnail version of the biography sounds a little unreal and more like something dreamed up for a Hollywood blockbuster. And Scorsese’s splashily swaggering film never entirely escapes the trap of that paradox.
Indeed, as a film concerned with a man shown conducting business simultaneously in the movies and aviation, The Aviator becomes so spectacularly and exultantly immersed in its subject that serious biography never has a chance. In Scorsese’s hands, Hughes’ life story becomes an extravagantly conventional rise-and-fall epic, with a stuff-of-legends romance, between Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), serving part-time duty as crowd-pleasing emotional hook.
The Hepburn romance gives the film its most charming and entertaining episode. Blanchett’s Hepburn is the most substantially performed characterization in the film, abut DiCaprio also serves very effectively as the embodiment of Hughes’ legend and reputation, if not his actual (and apparently unknowable) character. Both are key objects in a dissection of Hollywood glamour that, despite its explicit disillusionments, generates a perversely nostalgic glamour of its own.
Even the simplistic psychologizing over Hughes’ immobilizing cleanliness fetishes takes on a certain larger-than-life glamour here. And the brilliantly stylized aviation sequences, which seem bent on out-Hughesing Howard via CGI special effects, have a gee-whiz effect that seems part Spielberg and part Old Hollywood.