A Soaring Triumph

'The Aviator' - with Leonardo DeCaprio very much in control - flies high

Movie Reviews

December 25, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Not since Robert Downey Jr. in Chaplin has a star grown as an actor and grown up within a role as excitingly as Leonardo DiCaprio does as Howard Hughes in The Aviator. And The Aviator zooms light years beyond Chaplin as a movie.

DiCaprio leaps onto the screen as a 21-year- -old moviemaking tyro and airplane nut mounting an unprecedented spectacle, Hell's Angels (1930), with the largest private fleet of biplanes in the world and a number of cameras that provokes disbelief even from Louis B. Mayer. He leaves the film as a tycoon in his early 40s, reviled but not-yet-bowed to mental illness and tabloid notoriety.

DiCaprio (now 30) never acts like a kid - he embodies a precocious take-charge manliness. His forward-tilting slouch and flat, assertive talk come off as a one-two punch of social confrontation. It leaves everyone gasping, including his ultra-practical guy Friday, Noah Dietrich (the incomparable John C. Reilly), and a slew of Hollywood helpmates and gawkers.

This star knows the difference between playing someone who's cocksure and someone who sees failure and doesn't care. DiCaprio enacts the willful movement of a man who rolls the dice knowing the odds are that he'll lose. Yet he realizes there's nothing that can satisfy him - nothing that can make him who he is - unless he goes after the big score. He makes the decision-makers of today look like schmoozing bureaucrats or terrified, frozen-grinned frat boys.

Directed by Martin Scorsese and written by John Logan, this chronicle of Hughes in his heyday soars from one peak to another, through the Roaring '20s, the Depression, World War II and beyond - each scaled in a different, sizzling moviemaking style.

Scorsese captures the zest for speed that galvanized aerial pioneers and turned on a public primed by fast cars and cycles. He mirrors the improvisatory kapow of the most adventurous producers and directors who made the leap from silent to sound films. He trains a deep-blue equivalent of early two-strip Technicolor on the unapologetic, fetishistic glamour of bouncy bodies and bobbed hair that fed international dreams.

No one has caught early Hollywood the way Scorsese does here, because no one's had a cub by the tale the way Scorsese has with DiCaprio's Hughes. The exhilarating, tortuous making of Hell's Angels (and its immediate remaking, for sound) almost pales before Hughes' pursuit of real-life aerial speed records - and of an equally fast-moving Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), whose outspokenness, athleticism and quicksilver sensuality leave him speechless.

Until his obsessive-compulsive disorder kicks in, Hughes continues to balance aviation pioneering and Movieland risk-taking. He devises a sleek, near-perfect racer and a gorgeous spy plane for the government, and draws plans for the mammoth Hercules transport plane that becomes known as the Spruce Goose. He also engineers a special wire under-lift for Jane Russell's bra in his cheesecake Western The Outlaw (1940).

Shortly after he takes over the struggling Transcontinental and Western Airways (he renames it Trans World Airlines), he decides to take on then-all-powerful Pan Am. Its chief, a smug Ivy League mogul, Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin), has an influential senator in his pocket, Owen Brewster (Alan Alda). While all this is happening, Hughes fights the dual onslaught of OCD and paranoia, as well as the physical beatings and medical addictions that have resulted from fearsome plane crashes, including one that rips the roofs off several homes in Beverly Hills.

The genius of DiCaprio is to show not the mask but the true face of American home-grown ingenuity and ambition - as super-smart and open to options as the countenance of the young Cassius Clay. (It's no surprise that the first director on the project and now its first-listed producer is Michael Mann, who directed 2001's Ali.) But from the beginning, DiCaprio evokes the twisted psychic knots that will someday land Hughes in a glitzy hermitage of his own devising. When Hepburn fast-talks him on a golf course, his befuddlement may result from his partial deafness or her loquacity. But it may also derive from a mental glitch that's hard to isolate until too late.

The shrewdness of Logan's script (worked out with Mann) is that even when the lines seem docudrama-spare, no scene does just one thing. Blanchett's Hepburn may come on too strong, but when she and Hughes share a sober tete-a-tete after he smashes a speed record, the depth of her feeling takes over and DiCaprio and Scorsese match her pregnant pause for pregnant pause. With a kind of delicate desperation, she warns him about the perils of celebrity ("We have to be very careful not to let people in or they'll make us into freaks"). In this instant of honest communion, he admits, "I get these ideas ... crazy ideas about things that might not really be there."

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