Legendary director Martin Scorsese turns his lens to the biography of Howard Hughes in "The Aviator", delivering a triumphant ode to the golden age of Hollywood and to rugged individualism. Both help define Scorcese himself and much of his work, but a third ingredient in the film benefits the most from the director's attention to detail: the passion of aviation. The way Scorsese depicts aircraft of the 1920s-1940s boasts incredible vision. The director's artistry is apparent as the camera follows Hughes' flights. These sequences alone may be worth the price of admission. In the hands of a lesser director, the aerial shots would be ploys or stunts, but Scorsese turns them into art. As in his other period pieces (The Age of Innocence), the look and feel of the era is recreated masterfully. The 1080p presentation is absolutely hypnotic in its sheer beauty. So, too, is the way the camera follows the swing/big band era bandstands, costumes, automobiles and planes. Seemingly no expense was spared in making the sets or generating the camera shots.
Howard Hughes' (Leonardo DiCaprio) infatuation with flying is depicted with great passion and detail in The Aviator.
Unfortunately, the director cannot coax art out of Leonardo DiCaprio's portrayal of Hughes, but it is the actor's most ambitious performance to date. DiCaprio connects with Hughes' emotions, motives and obsessions at several points in the film with very good results. The problem is that Scorsese made his reputation by working with actors like Robert de Niro who are absolute chameleons on the screen and have the ability to become the character they play. This is the high benchmark we expect of actors in Scorsese's movies. But DiCaprio is not such an actor. One has the impression that he is trying to play a role rather than becoming a character. His very stage presence reminds us that he lacks the authority and innate acting skills to convincingly pull off a performance of this caliber. It is like the difference between a natural singer who has perfect pitch versus an average singer who, despite years of lessons and practice, will never have the "singing gene" in his chromosomes. For better or worse, DiCaprio is getting the lead role in all of Scorsese's films of the decade. They seem to be perennial partners. Still, tere is no doubt that Scorsese gets the best possible performances out of his cast.
From the beginning, as Hughes spends several years producing a big-budget war movie entitled "Hell's Angels', DiCaprio effectively captures the earnestness, obsessiveness and perfectionism that were hallmarks of the Texas businessman. An outsider trying to break into Hollywood and into the aeronautics industry, Hughes found a kindred soul in Katherine Hepburn, played with intriguing eclecticism by Cate Blanchett. DiCaprio and Blanchett make an awkward pair, but so did Hepburn and Hughes. They soon break up, which leaves Hughes shaken.
It is not long before Hughes' business decisions, relationships, phobias and inability to fully trust others become problematic. The eccentricities that make him a discerning businessman also threaten to bring about his failure. He buys TWA and secures defense contracts to design and supply planes to the military. But before he can deliver, the war ends. Faced with the physical challenge of overcoming a serious crash during a test flight and fending off rival Pan Am and the politicians it controls, Hughes must overcome his inner demons and testify before a government panel before he can get back to the skies to make history.
Visually, Scorsese's work is a treat to watch on any format, but the Blu-ray release of The Aviator proves to be magical. Trademark imagery of the director--such as the flashing of antique camera bulbs--is rendered with stunning detail in 1080p. The popping bulbs symbolize the pressure of public scrutiny and the ever-present eye of the media, but Scorsese shows these camera accessories as living, breathing creatures. An even greater visual palatte is served up in Scorsese's shots of the screening room scenes, showing his own beloved medium, film, with careful artistry. Old film reels, cameras and Hollywood parties come to life in Scorsese's rich vision. And of course, the superbly choreographed flight scenes are mesmerizing.
The only criticism of the picture is the stylized coloration. Scorcese opts for a slightly washed-out look that removes some of the vibrancy from reds and greens. The style does not detract from the cinematography, and it gives The Aviator a slightly dated look without removing color altogether. Color film was not an option for Hughes nearly 80 years ago, and Scorsese wanted to pay homage to the black and white era. At times, the Blu-ray shows vivid reds, blues and greens but often the color scheme is more subdued. The washed out look in some scenes is a small complaint, and overall the visuals in 1080p make the film worth watching--especially the flight scenes.
While not resolved as gorgeously as the video, the audio is also quite good. Voices and music are rendered convincingly. Unfortunately, Warner includes no PCM track and the soundstaging and imaging is not as impressive as many other Blu-ray releases. Still, the DD 5.1 track is sufficient. Blanchett's voice has the immediately recognizable, lilting qualities of Katharine Hepburn's delivery, while DiCaprio's voice communicates a hesitancy and lack of authority that nearly undermine his portrayal of Hughes. With Warner continuing to release its films on Blu-ray and HD DVD, chances are not good that the studio will decide to deliver lossless PCM content anytime soon. One can only hope Warner goes Blu-ray exclusive and decides to take advantage of the higher capacity BD and produce PCM tracks for their Blu-ray releases.
While the lack of PCM is regrettable, fans of Scorcese will be delighted with the supplementary material offered by Warner. Most welcome of all is the commentary by Scorcese. An additional scene not released in theaters also gets top billing. But many of the featurettes are even more intriguing, especially if Howard Hughes' life is of interest. The featurettes include: Making The Aviator; The Role of Howard Hughes in Aviation History; Modern Marvels: Howard Hughes, a History Channel Documentary; The Affliction of Howard Hughes: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder; The Visual Effects of The Aviator; Costuming and Scoring The Aviator; The Aviator and the Age of Glamour; and An Evening with Leonardo DiCaprio and Alan Alda. Rounding out the supplementary material is a still gallery and the 1080p theatrical trailer.
Will Scorsese make another film without DiCaprio in the lead role? First it was Gangs of New York. Now The Aviator and The Departed. And two upcoming collaborations are rumored: Shutter Island and The Wolf of Wall Street. I have often wondered why Scorsese hitches his star to DiCaprio and the best explanation is that blockbuster movies are not cheap to make and getting studios to sign off on a project is not easy. Hollywood funds an expensive project only if it is sure to net big dollars at the box office. What better way to ensure that success than with a star like DiCaprio? He may not be the best actor of his generation, but he's one of the best looking and the teens flock to the theaters in droves to see him. Ever since Titanic's release, DiCaprio has ensured millions of ticket sales based solely on his name appearing on the marquee.
I earnestly hope that the Oscar won by Scorsese will allow studios to give him more license to do what he wants. Let him choose a different lead actor yet still get the budget he needs to bring his visions to the screen. If I see many more Scorsese films with DiCaprio, it will be a shame. Not that films like The Departed and The Aviator are bad. They are actually very good. And all the more so because of Scorsese's artistry. But there is something lacking in the latest crop of his movies and that is a lead actor who becomes the role instead of just acting it.