I am genuinely amazed at just how well this films holds up today. It has probably been exactly a decade since I’ve watched this, and upon revisiting it there’s just so much more to appreciate with this film than before (granted, I was a kid). What might initially appear to be a disjointed traversing of time with only minimal continuity is instead a lush boy’s own adventure kind of story with keen insights into Martin Scorsese’s fascination with Howard Hughes.
Re-watching this movie, I can’t help but recall my incredulity that Boyhood, one of 2014’s biggest, most protracted cinematic dumpster fires, was ever made to begin with. They should’ve seen this three years into the making of that movie and quit while they were ahead because The Aviator actually contains an earnest reflection on life and legacy. This is one of the less remembered works of his post-Kundun career – three hours long and bouncing through the obsessions of Howard Hughes, all of which (thrilling war spectacle, aeronautics, patriotism, breasts, tech gadgets, etc.) were – as Scorsese identifies – the subjects of young masculine drive as much if not even more-so than sex.
Yet I think it’s as vital as any of his classic gangster staples for the director’s keen use of cinematic restraint. That’s an odd thing to say about Scorsese, one of Hollywood’s most deliberately unsubtle filmmakers, and it’s not just because in hindsight it looks downright family friendly next to The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s because of where the energy is. This is a subject that evokes Scorsese’s brattiest passions, and you’d expect a renowned auteur like that, especially with what was at the time his biggest ever film budget until Hugo, to overdo it and thus fall too deeply in love with one of the two dual personas. But Scorsese somehow avoids that. He doesn’t twist the story into a leftist critique of wealth excess for the self-flagellation of Warren Buffett (if anything he generously applies the labels of sleazy and shallow to much of ritzy old Hollywood). Nor does he settle for a merely ironic metaphor. One of The Aviator‘s best scenes takes place at Hughes’s house just after Katherine Hepburn (quite possibly the last person with him he will have a truly intimate human connection with) has left him for another man. Hughes burns his entire wardrobe, eventually stripping naked himself just to ensure the cleanse. A lesser filmmaker would have shown it off as proof that the eccentric emperor has no clothes, but The Aviator, through Scorsese’s cinematography and Leonardo DiCaprio’s incredible performance show instead something far less banal. Hughes, while in constant chase of his ego, is not lost in his own vanity but trying to stay comfortable in his crawling skin.
And DiCaprio truly deserves credit for taking up the challenge to play the most visibly maturing (present tense emphasized) role of his career. He doesn’t look remotely like Hughes, but he encapsulates the hyper-vibrant opulence of the character in his time, a style he would later perfect with his performances of Jay Gatsby and Jordan Belfort.
This was an odd entry in 2004, a year that doesn’t have much to speak of in film beyond Spider-Man 2 and the insane political polarization of The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11 that Armond White persuasively documents as the breaking of American culture. But twelve years later, The Aviator is better, more evocative and powerful than I suspect many of us remember it to be. It can’t touch Scorsese’s Top 5, but a film this dynamic deserves another look… or a first look. Just don’t watch it too many times lest you become as obsessive as Hughes himself.