Though Flamboyant, The Aviator Still Excellent

Was Howard Hughes a hero? We’re not sure, but Martin Scorsese certainly seems to think so. The Aviator is a big-budget, masterfully crafted picture including all the popular elements necessary for a successful Hollywood film. The acting is well-done, the costumes carefully designed, the sets larger than life, and the score equally noteworthy. However, does all this glamour deceive the audience into a false portrayal of not only Howard Hughes, but of early Hollywood as well? Scorsese’s vision is seductive due to his talent, but the reality is most likely a whole other story.Beginning in the late 1920s and progressing into the mid-1940s, The Aviator covers an important time in American history. This film is not a sweeping, objective biography of Howard Hughes; rather, The Aviator gives us a small, biased portion of the man’s life. Leonardo DiCaprio plays the womanizing, mentally unstable, aviation-obsessed, mathematical genius Hughes. While DiCaprio might not physically resemble Hughes, he does an excellent job at portraying the legend’s quirks and struggles. Hughes’ business partner Noah Dietrich, played by the talented John C. Reilly, is his ally and friend throughout the film, thereby fulfilling the classic Hollywood role of “the trusted sidekick.”Hughes had many love interests, but the two most famous, Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale), get the most attention in the film. Hughes’ struggle to rise to the top of the aviation world, while battling severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, is the main subject of the film. By the end, we know Hughes will have professional success, but that privately he will continue to fight for sanity.Blanchett’s portrayal of screen legend Hepburn is an interesting mix of clich?e and practiced mannerisms. Although Blanchett in some ways might physically resemble Hepburn, and captures her style, it is hard to accept her as the famous actress. Blanchett’s voice, although biting, does not quite reach the magnitude of Hepburn’s. In dialogue and interactions, Blanchett’s Hepburn comes across more as a caricature than an accurate representation.While Hughes (DiCaprio) and Gardner (Beckinsale) are not such well-known personalities, DiCaprio and Beckinsale don’t seem to have to try so hard, or at least not so obviously as to draw attention or derision.One element of the film that also came across as a caricature of reality was the decadence and the atmosphere of the times. Examples of this excess are the musicians at Hughes’ favorite high society club, The Coconut Grove. Anytime a musician or band leader is depicted, their expressions seem overly joyous and their movements flamboyant. The style of the shots emphasizes the ridiculous, overly exaggerated actions of these characters. While this enhanced the lighthearted atmosphere of the club scenes, it seemed reminiscent of Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge, and is distracting in its divergence from the bounds of reality.Sometimes Scorsese’s heavy-handed usage of his color palette crossed the bounds of reality as well. One scene that demonstrates this problem is our first view of Hepburn and Hughes interacting. When they enter the golf course, we see a drastic change in tone and lighting. Suddenly the scene appears stolen from a 1940s picture, with washed-out greens and browns. Scorsese might have been trying to place the star in the surroundings and color tones in which modern-day audience is used to viewing Hepburn. However, it doesn’t work; it merely distracts. This technique is utilized again when Hepburn is present – giving credence to this theory – but it is hard to know exactly what Scorsese’s intentions were, or if he realized how dramatically they would affect the scene’s viewing. Scorsese plays with color in scenes depicting Hughes’ mental illness. In one long scene in which Hughes locks himself in his projection room, the color red is glaringly present. Although it is supposed to be a light indicating someone wants to get into the room, it becomes an omnipresent symbol of the destructive force of his illness and the halt it puts not only on his career but his life and future happiness. This light is present earlier in the film, and though not as overwhelming, it foreshadows the breakdown that is to come.Color is used again with Hughes’ illness, this time to emphasize the lows to which he has sunk. When Ava Gardner visits Hughes to help him pull himself out of his paranoid state, she appears in overly bright clothing, contrasting greatly with the squalor of Hughs’ surroundings. Scorsese makes Hughes’ condition appear strange and dismal by juxtaposing it with Gardner’s carefully crafted outfit and vibrant, bright colors from head to toe.Another aspect of Scorsese’s stylistic skill is demonstrated in his shot composition. The stereotypical bad guy of the film, president of Pan Am Airways Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin), is almost always shot from a low angle. This technique emphasizes both his presence in the frame as well as the powerful position he held. The use of low angle shots increases the menace and threat Trippe holds over Hughes.Scorsese further utilizes careful shot composition when dealing with the theme of Hughes’ isolation. Even when Hughes is surrounded by people – whether in large crowds or intimate groups – his anxiety is made clear. The director accomplishes this feeling by placing Hughes in a frame alone, emphasizing his solidarity despite his physical proximity to others. Hughes’ anguish is also made evident by frequent close-ups, almost in the style of a method actor.Typical of a Hollywood blockbuster, the score of this film is dramatic and always noticeable. Though very well done, its grandiosity, at times, seems to try too hard to pluck at the heartstrings of the audience. Similarly, the shooting style for some of the large-scale planes, mostly computer generated, was melodramatic and over the top, especially when combined with vast orchestral movements.While this film has all the elements of “great entertainment,” the troubling question of how close this film is to reality arose too often. When dealing with non-fictional characters, it is important not only to get the clothing right but the individual’s character and life events as well. One example of this is in regards to Howard Hughes’ love life. The main way Hughes is shown with his trysts is in a dreamy, romantic atmosphere with glamorous starlets. However, his affairs are only mentioned in passing and never depicted on screen. Considering his other engagements involved underage girls and cheating on every woman he was ever involved with, it is not surprising that Scorsese would choose to gloss over this and only show what helps make Hughes a more romantic hero.Another example of the veil surrounding Hughes is how quickly he was able to recover from his climactic breakdown – in which he locked himself in the projection room for a prolonged period of time. With no explanation given, Hughes was able to bounce from madness to sanity without any real process or time lapse. This unlikely depiction makes him seem more in control and capable than his illness would suggest.A final example of the unrealistic aspects of The Aviator occurs during the melodramatic courtroom scene. Filled with bold speeches and a composure which Hughes had not been able to maintain for the previous two hours of the film, our hero is able to triumph over the evil Chairman of the Board who is in cahoots with Juan Trippe. The freedom Hughes is allowed at the trial in turning the interrogation back on the Chairman is entirely unlikely, serving only to bolster the hero image Scorsese exudes.A highly entertaining, sweeping saga, The Aviator is sure to win some Oscars this year for basically being the prototype of what makes a successful Hollywood film: famous director, well-known leading figures, a love affair, a sidekick, a villain, a hero, action and a yearning for the “American Dream.”The Academy and critics can ignore the extra half hour of footage that should have been cut out because Best Picture of the Year films are always too long – and somehow the best films can’t be contained within the two-hour time limit. Despite the fact that this film does not closely adhere to reality, it is still a beautiful, captivating story of one man’s triumphs and tragedies.