Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Aviator (2004) [PG-13] *****

Encompassing twenty years of his life, from the late 1920s to the late 1940s, this biopic of Howard Hughes focuses on his fascination with filmmaking and Hollywood film actresses, with aircraft design and engineering, and with commercial aviation. Using the profits from his Houston-based Hughes Tool Company, maker of oil well drill bits, Hughes produced and directed the epic WW I film Hell’s Angels. He was obsessed with achieving perfection in the aerial dogfight sequences, and wouldn’t shoot unless he had cloudy skies as a backdrop, so the aircraft would appear to be flying fast. He designed and manufactured a light pursuit aircraft, tested it himself, and won a speed record in the process. 

During WW II he developed a high-altitude spy aircraft that was never manufactured, but that he tested and crashed, nearly killing himself in the process. He also designed and manufactured the Hercules, nicknamed the spruce goose, a mammoth wooden cargo aircraft designed to airlift soldiers and war materiel to the European war theater, but which only flew once, in Long Beach Harbor, after the war had ended. He created Trans World Airlines (TWA) by merging smaller domestic air carriers, and challenged Juan Trippe, CEO of Pan American Aviation, as well as the U.S. Congress, for the right to compete as an international carrier. He was also legendary for romancing the most beautiful Hollywood leading ladies including Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, Jane Russell and Jean Harlow.

Hughes’ greatest successes came relatively early in life, as he applied his technical genius in solving aeronautical engineering challenges. As a test pilot, however, he was a reckless risk taker who repeatedly put his life, as well as other lives, in danger by ignoring the advice of his chief engineer Glenn Odekirk. As a businessman Hughes was equally reckless, repeatedly driving his business ventures to the brink of bankruptcy, and apparently only surviving through the heroic efforts of his chief financial officer Noah Dietrich. Over time, his disregard for his personal safety, his willingness to gamble enormous sums of money on his pet projects, and his pathological fear of disease germs, all detracted from Hughes’ acknowledged genius, and by the late 1940s when the film ends, Hughes had become a caricature of himself, and had begun his descent into madness.

Leonardo DiCaprio gives a sensitive, insightful performance as Howard Hughes, and the supporting cast is equally impressive, especially John C. Reilly as Noah Dietrich, Matt Ross as Glenn Odie Odekirk, Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn, Alec Baldwin as Juan Trippe, Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner and Alan Alda as U.S. Senator Ralph Owen Brewster. The screenplay by John Logan (Gladiator, The Last Samurai), the direction by Martin Scorsese, the costumes, sets, cinematography, musical score and overall production values are all impressive. The film garnered five Oscars at the 2005 Academy Awards ceremony, and was nominated for six more Oscars. 

Labels: biography, drama, filmmaking, flying

Internet Movie Database
Metacritic 77/100
Tomatometer (critics=87, viewers=79)

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