I loved every minute of this long (almost 3 hour) movie. First, there are the airplanes. Scorcese re-creates the filming of Hell’s Angels, a movie that took about three years to make, including a re-shooting of all the dialogue scenes because of the advent of talkies. There were 150 W.W.I biplanes involved, and as many as thirty cameras in some of the shots, and they managed what may still be the best stunt flying ever put on film. It’s a little heartbreaking to watch it and reflect on how easy it was for Scorsese to re-create the dogfights with shots Howard Hughes never could have gotten, through the magic of CGI. For all I know Scorsese might not have used a single functional aircraft in this movie. But there’s a good side: three stunt pilots died in the 1930 version. There are other aircraft scenes that are very good, including the Hughes H-1, the fastest plane in the world at the time, and there’s the good old Spruce Goose (sorry, Howard, I meant the Hercules), a pitifully underpowered goliath that I’ve visited in California and her new home in Oregon. It all looks glorious and accurate, with the exception of one shot that shows the plane at a higher altitude than it ever reached on its only flight.
Then there’s Cate Blanchett as Kate Hepburn. She nails it as surely as Jamie Foxx nailed Ray Charles earlier this year. How does this skinny Aussie manage to play Elizabeth I, Irish Veronica Guerin, a frontier American woman, and now a New England bitch (I mean that in the best possible way; I love Hepburn), and make them all totally convincing? She is really fantastic here, a high point of the movie.
And last but not least, there is Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor I haven’t been particularly impressed with until now. In fact, I thought he pretty much robbed Gangs of New York of its credibility. He is the only actor I know of who seems to appear smaller on the big screen; according to the IMDb he is 6′ 1”, but he always seems like a shrimp to me. Maybe he’s lying about his height. But here he is commanding and convincing. In the later parts of this movie he has an uncanny resemblance to Orson Welles in Citizen Kane.
Howard Hughes was nutty as a Payday bar, everybody knows that, but I hadn’t thought a lot about the nature of his mental illness. He was obviously paranoid, but Scorsese in The Aviator shows him with progressively worsening obsessive-compulsive disorder. He uses some of the techniques he used so well in Goodfellas to show what it’s like to be high on crank to give you a glimpse of the kind of world an OC sufferer lives in. It is awful. And it is sad to reflect that, if he had lived today, his condition would be treatable. When I consider the things he was able to accomplish in spite of his illness, I have to wonder what he might have achieved if he’d been sane. Maybe nothing, maybe his demons drove him in both good and bad ways. Maybe many of his fabled eccentricities were simply the result of privilege and the ancient right to be an asshole if you have the money to back it up. We’ll never know.