Personality in Motion
To be enthralled by a biopic during the latter part of this movie season is something special. Before The Aviator, the glut of life stories being dropped into our laps in 2004 did little to remove their image as perfunctory tales about rising, falling, and rising again, told in straightforward fashion. In contrast, director Martin Scorsese's work doesn't worry about telling its story -- its specialty is flow. One of the things I admire about Scorsese's 1990 masterwork Goodfellas is that it moves, and the same can be said for The Aviator. It's the difference between making a two-hour movie feel like three hours and making a three-hour movie feel like two hours.
The Aviator moves because, like another successful Scorsese biopic, Raging Bull, it sees the portrait of a man as the illustration of the strongest facets of his personality, not the recounting of important events in his life. Here, events serve as pieces of that illustration first, as events, per se, second. Because the subject of the picture is a passionate, driven man, the movie takes on his personality. It won't stop to bask in the glow of accomplishments -- life is lived because these people push themselves to live it. The movie moves itself along to keep up.
The driven being in this case is Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio), seen as a man who had the resources to try whatever he wanted. He had so much freedom, in fact, that he could indulge in both his interests and his fears without much interference. Hughes is shown as an unreined obsessive-compulsive, whose perfectionism becomes a double-edged sword -- it impelled him to create great things, but also sharpened an irrational paranoia of germs, which developed into extreme, meticulous, debilitating rituals. The Aviator suggests that human beings can be viewed as the embodiment of these two forces: the instinctive passions that propel us forward and the instinctive insecurities that hold us back. No matter what we achieve in our lives, these forces continue to direct us.
Most of us, though, don't have the luxury to let our personalities do all the steering; we are limited by obligations, responsibilities, and ties, be they financial, familial or legal. Hughes, then, automatically becomes one of the most fascinating subjects to study since he is not readily bound by money or family, and here we see how he may have grown even bigger than the system. We can't help wondering if any of us could have been Howard Hughes, for better and for worse, if we had his situation -- for much of the film, we see that Hughes gets what he wants mostly by just asking the right people and by thoroughly knowing his subject. Given this power, "impossible" has no meaning to him. With money as no object, drive leads to success, success feeds the drive, and accomplishments are born. Thus, one of the last lines spoken in the film emerges as particularly haunting. Spoken by Hughes as a young boy, it posits the root to achievements as a child's simple sentiment and puts the dependence on wealth into perspective. Or, in other words, we all had dreams as a child; having resources would allow us to pursue those dreams and perhaps regress into perpetual machines of instinct, like Hughes, in the process.
Intertwined in Hughes's life are his various relationships to high-profile women, an acknowledgement of the universal need for sex and intimate companionship that often butts heads with general ambition. For many male personalities, it's a side hunger requiring nourishment only when the force that drives their passions has come to a temporary rest. For over-achievers, this means the two needs will always be put at odds with each other, and, with money and power, the need for female company becomes the easier one to dispose and replace. But it's never that easy when one is dealing with another human being, is it?
Of the women prominent in Hughes's life and necessary for his well-being, two are spotlighted here: Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale). Blanchett in particular shines, her version of Hepburn a marvelous force of nature -- it sticks out at first, but confidently grows on the viewer. Hepburn's involvement with Hughes represents the most bold depiction of the standoff between the two drives -- how noticeably she disappears for the second half of the movie seems all the more stark by the largeness of Blanchett's onscreen persona.
Photographed in a manner evoking the glamour and California sunniness of the Golden Age of Hollywood, The Aviator is not only fascinating as a study of unnaturally honed human behavior but also a pleasure to look at as well. Hughes's world was an idealized world, and on the screen it's visualized in soft nostalgic glow, the classic world of movies materializing like a warm reminiscence. Regarding the flights, the aerial sequences are breathtaking, conveying the pure thrills Hughes hungers for. It would be easy to compare Hughes's aviation to Jake La Motta's boxing as a form of release, but, more precisely, flying is the goal and not the escape for Hughes. He is ambition unfettered; he uses his vast resources to be able to reach the sky and stay there, flying as fast as he can. Word must be said about DiCaprio's performance, which is terrific -- he uses his youthful looks, playboy persona, and angry intensity to great effect as this prepossessed, larger-than-life character.
According to The Aviator, Howard Hughes's life was his personality, and his personality was his life. His accomplishments need no justification, no rosy-ing up, and are not offered as opportunities for redemption or the consequence of struggle. They happened as direct results of Hughes's rocking momentum as he bounced from passion to paranoia back to passion. He was always in motion, and Scorsese's movie about him also moves.
(Released by Miramax and rated "PG-13" for thematic elements, sexual content, nudity, language and a crash sequence.)
Review also posted on www.windowtothemovies.com.