I couldn’t help but ponder this frustrating paradox during Martin Scorsese’s newest, The Aviator, a film chronicling the life of Hollywood wonderboy Howard Hughes. There is no question that Martin Scorsese is a brilliant and gifted filmmaker, but his new biopic is lifeless—a word rarely applied to the always vital Scorsese. It is a film without passion seemingly made solely to finally get Scorsese the Oscar his previous work has so richly deserved.
Beginning with Hughes’ (Leonardo DiCaprio) involvement in the film industry, chronicling his many affairs, depicting his involvement with the government and his eventual mental deterioration before concluding with the successful flight of the “Spruce Goose” (we learn that Hughes hated that name), The Aviator covers a lot of ground in the life of an extremely interesting man.
But throughout the film, the audience is held curiously aloof from Hughes as a person. No matter how much of his life we observe, there is little to nothing to make viewers genuinely care about him or get an idea of what really drove him. It doesn’t even give us the electrifying sense of urgency that generally drives Scorsese’s films—even his flawed yet intriguing Gangs of New York. Scorsese never seems invested in The Aviator and, as a result, though entertaining at times, the film never becomes anything more substantial than a mild diversion.
Yet, The Aviator has all of the characteristics of an “Oscar caliber” Hollywood epic—it looks fantastic, features some wonderful performances and has a broad thematic scope. Scorsese’s recreation of a Los Angeles long past is incredible; the smoky atmosphere he recreates nearly rivals that of the brilliant (and vastly superior) L.A. Confidential. Furthermore, DiCaprio’s depiction of Hughes is quite good and at times even remarkable. His talents are particularly noticeable when Hughes’ deteriorating mental health allows him much more room to create an impassioned performance.
Most of the impressive supporting cast showcase Scorsese’s ability to craft small but memorable performances. John C. Reilly shines in his small role, as does Willem Dafoe in a brief cameo as a tabloid editor. It was great to see Alan Alda back on the big screen with a fairly meaty role as a senator who is out to get Hughes. And if nothing else, The Aviator reiterates that having Ian Holm and Alec Baldwin on screen, if only briefly, is nearly always worthwhile. Unfortunately, Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Katharine Hepburn doesn’t fare as well—within five seconds of her appearance she was grating on my nerves. If the real Hepburn was as annoying as in this portrayal, it becomes easier to imagine why Hughes lost his mind.
Scorsese is not past his prime. As recently as 1999 he crafted a masterpiece—Bringing Out the Dead. That film took audiences through hell, showing audiences the world through a broken emotionally drained ambulance driver. It was filled with passion and fire—it had sense of immediacy.
But with The Aviator, there is no vitality to explain its existence. Scorsese was working on an Alexander the Great film, but decided to make this movie instead because it was his friend Oliver Stone’s lifelong dream to bring Alexander to the screen. But it is difficult to believe that this film has any personal connection to the director; it simply lacks the sense of joy always beneath the surface of a Scorsese film. I look forward to Scorsese getting the Oscar, even if it is for his weakest film in years, so that he can go back to making films he cares about, not simply churning out Oscar bait.