Scorsese's 'The Aviator' lands just short of greatness

by Matt Hill | 1/24/05 6:00am

It was probably just a coincidence that, taking my seat in one of the Nugget's cramped-yet-comfortable theaters, I had Tom Petty's "Learning to Fly" stuck in my head. It was an empty theater, you know, and they don't have trivia playing before the movie starts, so I was tapping my pencil on the back of the chair in front of me, and hummed a few of the lyrics: "I'm learning to fly but I ain't got wings/But what goes up must come down"

It was only after seeing Martin Scorsese's new epic -- when, of course, the song returned to my head -- that I was able to resolve my feelings about the film. "The Aviator" begins by chronicling the high-flying Hollywood years of Howard Hughes, a young Texas-born billionaire setting his sights on the bourgeoning filmmaking industry. Scorsese takes us deftly from Hughes' outrageously overproduced creation of "Hell's Angels" through his fascinating relationship with Katherine Hepburn -- played to idiosyncratic perfection by Cate Blanchett -- and then to his growing interest in the manufacturing of state-of-the-art airplanes.

This first hour or so of the picture is grand, gloriously glamorous, smooth and swift moving, a true "Spruce Goose" of filmmaking. Yet as the movie continues, delving into Hughes' worsening condition of OCD and his legal battles with Pan-American Airways, a problem becomes rather apparent. It's a hitch met by many biopics: the movie lacks both focus and a narrative arc. Scorsese is both meticulous and skillful in dealing with Hughes, undeniably the film's sole subject but is working with what is less a story than a series of varyingly interesting events.

We can thank The Marty for choosing a specific time in Hughes' life on which to focus, as the director opts not to go into his pursuits in purchasing hotels or his later "modernization" of Las Vegas. That said, though, the film's timeline seems arbitrary, a choice seemingly made only in light of cinematic conventions: that a film must be at least an hour and a half and shouldn't be longer than three. In "The Aviator," there is little that holds its three acts together, other than Hughes' unvarying ambition and his worsening case of OCD. The film's startlingly abrupt and awkward ending is a testament to this problem: the film doesn't so much tell a story as it recounts a history.

It should be noted that Leonardo DiCaprio's performance, the heart of the film, is a career-topper in every sense of the word. I'll be the first to say it: DiCaprio has made some exceptionally good choices recently. After "Titanic", a movie that some have said both made and broke his career, there were, admittedly, the somewhat forgettable "Man in the Iron Mask" and the mildly disastrous "The Beach." But DiCaprio, who could have been Peter Parker or Anakin Skywalker if he'd wanted, has clearly stepped successfully out of the centerfolds of Tiger Beat and J-14 (I have a sister) into the realm of mature adult acting, creating fascinating characters in "Catch Me if You Can" as Frank Abagnale, a Huck Finn-type of the '60s and in "Gangs of New York" as a vengeance-seeking Irish immigrant. "The Aviator" represents his most convincing, focused and compelling performance, marked by vivid intensity and an unwavering sense of character.

In all, Scorsese's effort is an admirable success, hampered mostly by its narrative structure, or lack thereof. The film provides a fascinating look inside a man who, despite being commonly remembered as a moneyed recluse living with Kleenex boxes as shoes in locked Las Vegas hotel rooms, led a life of extraordinary ambition and vision. "The Aviator" is, well, like that song I was telling you about: it aims to soar into the stratosphere of great movies, yet ultimately falls just short. It knows where it wants to fly but doesn't quite have the wings to get there.