The general line about Martin Scorsese is that he's sold out--gone mainstream, gone soft, used his edgy visual intelligence to make products generic enough and likable enough that he'll at last win that elusive Oscar.
Don't think The Aviator measures up to the best Scorsese has ever done, only better than most filmmakers-- can you name anyone interesting working in the epic format nowadays? Terence Malick with The Thin Red Line (tho I could have done without the voiceover drone); Hayao Miyazaki with Mononoke Hime. Peter Jackson's hobbit movies are longer and more expensive; I think they're longer and more expensive than they are interesting, myself.
Also think Scorsese--who's branched out in different directions (a musical; a 19th century drama; the Dalai Lama; ancient Palestine)-- is testing the big-budget spectacular much in the way he's tested other genres. He's already stumbled once-- the misconceived Gangs of New York where visual flair embroidered a thin storyline (patched together from Herbert Asbury's writings on the period), and Daniel Day-Lewis' fire-eating performance swallowed Leonardo DiCaprio whole.
With The Aviator Scorsese is on more solid ground. Howard Hughes' life is filled with enough drama and incident to justify several biopics; the challenge lies in choosing. I can see homing in on his early life: the later, longhaired Hughes locked away in his hotel room is probably too familiar to most-- his early years would have the impact of surprise. Plus elements in that budding career bring out two of Scorsese's favorite themes (the obsessed creator at work; the struggle against censorship or the established view). John Logan's script works in a third favorite theme (the struggle-- spiritual, psychological-- with one's inner self) by extrapolating from the historical record-- Hughes' eccentricities (his aversion to germs, his unique treatment of peas) were already noted back in the '30s.
The results look more mainstream than most Scorsese (save the blandly commercial Color of Money) feels more openly upbeat; easy to argue the director has as much right as anyone to take it easy, tell a mainstream upbeat story-- till you look at the film itself.
It's no secret that Scorsese admires Hughes-- in one interview, he describes the man as 'a visionary' and 'a genius,' speaks enthusiastically of the flying epic Hell's Angels, the shooting of which he partly depicts on film. What has many people confused, however, is that 'admire' does not necessarily mean 'approve of;' Scorsese may appreciate aspects of Hughes' character, perhaps even find him worthy of emulation, but is enough of an artist to show all of Hughes' sides, including less savory elements. Even the fact that the film ends with the one and only flight of Hughes' Spruce Goose with Hughes himself at the wheel--seen as a triumphant gesture of defiance-- means more than just stopping at a high point…but more later.
Key to Scorsese's interpretation is his shaping of the lead's performance: Leonardo DeCaprio, so wan and uncompelling opposite Daniel Day-Lewis, comes into his own here. He doesn't much resemble Hughes except in the early scenes, when Hughes dresses up for photographers, but he has the boyish energy Scorsese saw in Hughes-- that Hughes probably saw in himself. That, and an outsider's wariness; photos of Hughes in premieres and parties reveal an animal caught in headlights-- Hughes craved attention, yet looked uncomfortable when he got it (talking with then-girlfriend Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) you see how natural she is under the spotlight in comparison). When Hepburn invites him to the family mansion the encounter plays like a screwball comedy until Hughes stops proceedings cold with his blunt honesty-- he's not one for witty or even tactful repartee. De Caprio's Hughes is charismatic but along with the charisma is this tension this awkwardness, a quality Scorsese himself has when interviewed-- he can schmooze and talk as ably as any celebrity he just doesn't seem completely at ease doing it. As in many a Scorsese film the director identifies with his protagonist but along with this identification is a critical awareness; he's never completely on the side of his hero.
The film is not just a series of career triumphs; equally telling are the details. When Hughes wants something done, he throws a lot of money at it; when he doesn't have enough money he orders his men to do some accounting hocus-pocus and borrows or cheats to acquire the necessary amount. He's hard on his men; he makes endless demands, counting on his enthusiasm or their unquestioning loyalty to drive them into delivering. And when something doesn't work, or something else needs to get done, or something does get done despite all his shenanigans he draws attention away from the problem by introducing a new challenge even more daunting than the previous. The Aviator isn't just the portrait of a great American but of greed ambition corporate mismanagement by one of the supposed titans of American business. If the tone was more high drama than comedy critics might have been less strident about Scorsese's hero worship; as is it helps that scenes play out as comedy-- the laughs only emphasize the horror of what's happening.
A moment to point out Scorsese's unusual color scheme: when the film starts out in the late '20s the film simulates the Two-Color Technicolor experiments of the time-- an immersion device and homage most likely-- but an extra effect (intended or not) is to evoke the red white blue (actually blue-green) of the US flag. The last scene in Two-Color is Hughes' last unequivocal success: the speed record he set flying the H-1 in 1935, immediately after which he crashes (that same year Becky Sharp introduced Three-Strip Technicolor to theaters). By the time of Hughes' record-breaking around-the-world flight in 1938, the film has moved on to the more natural and visually complex Three-Strip process; Hughes' achievement happens offscreen instead of front-and-center (as the H-1 flight had), and the focus now is on Juan Trippe, of Pan American Airlines, taking note of this young upstart and how he might have to be dealt with (the second and far more destructive plane crash was supposed to cue a switch to a more contemporary color scheme, only Scorsese said 'I kind of miss the color').
As for the ending-- yes the Spruce Goose does take off, but (skip the paragraph if you haven't seen the film) I'd hardly call it an unmitigated triumph; if anything the film ends on ambiguity, with Hughes staring into a mirror saying "wave of the future wave of the future"-- hopeful or helpless words depending on how you take DeCaprio's line reading (Scorsese doesn't give us easy clues): either you respond with a "thank god," or add "nor are we out of it."
A final note-- Scorsese most likely never intended his film to be timely in such a way, but The Aviator's focus on the rise of a famous "visionary" echoes the career of another equally visionary, equally blinkered American, namely the present president. Fun to point out the parallel details-- the mismanagement; the demand for loyalty; the simultaneous puritanism and hypocrisy-- but for now the most eloquent detail I can glean from their respective histories is how they choose to end: on a supposed note of unmitigated triumph, the later decline and fall more hinted at than actually depicted. As if to say: we are all caught in their future, nor are we out of it.
First published in Businessworld 2/25/05