When you reach the level of a Martin Scorsese, you're like Mark McGwire; you better hit the ball out of the park every single time or you're letting someone down. So when the deservedly adored Mr. Scorsese delivered a bloop double with his Gangs of New York, the faithful were supportive -- but a little concerned. Where was that homer-smashing hero who gave us Raging Bull and Goodfellas? Sure, Gangs looked stunning and housed a handful of excellent performances, but let's be honest: there's no way it's bound to be remembered as one of the filmmaker's finest efforts.
Which is why I believe that Scorsese's follow-up project, The Aviator, was afforded just a bit too much of the effusive praise it received from virtually every corner of the globe. Yes, it's an extremely good film; heck, if Gangs was a bloop double, the The Aviator is a rocket-shot triple off the outfield fence. But it's just not excellent, and when you're talking about one of the planet's finest living filmmakers, "excellent" is what you've come to expect. And I can pinpoint the film's flaws to one distinct department: the editing.
That's not to imply that the phenomenally gifted editor Thelma Schoonmaker didn't do a fine job; she absolutely did, and apparently the Academy Awards voters felt the same way when they handed out their statues. It's simply that The Aviator starts out like a rocket ... and ends with a fizzle. Were this film directed by the Martin Scorsese of twenty years ago, an astute and hard-nosed producer would have taken Marty aside and said, "Wow, there's a great movie in this 170 minutes. Trim it down to 135 and you just might have a masterpiece." But given Mr. Scorsese's reputation and status, there's not likely to be a producer who'd tell him what to do (Weinsteins notwithstanding). And that's just a little bit of a shame, because were it not for The Aviator's frequent lags in pacing it would, indeed, be a masterpiece. I'm not saying that "shorter is better" is always the way, but in the case of The Aviator, I believe Scorsese does himself a disservice by ambling away in the latter parts of the film when a more expedient approach would have been much more compelling.
That's it; that's really the only specific complaint I have regarding The Aviator: it wears out its welcome just when it should be clutching you by the collar. And that's the last time I'll mention it, because literally everything else about The Aviator is bathed in high-end cinematic quality of the most sterling degree.
The film tells the story of young Howard Hughes: aviation enthusiast, ladies' man, filmmaker, multi-millionaire, and eventual basket case in the clutches of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The story opens in the mid-1920s, and an enthusiastic Mr. Hughes is hard at work on the most expensive movie ever made. "Hell's Angels" was a troubled production decades before anyone ever heard of movies called "Brazil" or "Ishtar." After chopping miles of footage down into an actual movie, Hughes' war epic was met by critical acclaim and so-so box office receipts, and the young mogul quickly set his sights towards his alternate passion -- and that passion was airplanes.
Using mostly his own money, Hughes would design and build some of the most revolutionary airships ever seen at the time. He'd work alongside the U.S. government when a new style of spy plane was needed; Heck, the guy was so passionate about aircraft that he simply went and bought Trans-Continental Airlines (which he'd soon re-christen as TWA). Clearly this is a man who was a slave to his passions, and it's a good thing for Mr. Hughes that he was born into a family with such a hefty bankroll.
Known as a somewhat odd gentleman, Hughes was also infamous for his way with the ladies. Longtime love Katherine Hepburn was only one of the many Hollywood starlets who hung on Howard's arm at the hottest nightclubs and restaurants. But just as disillusionment often follows idealism, Hughes would soon find that the more powerful he became in the aviation industry, the more people there were who wanted to take him down.
All of it makes for perfect movie material, and Scorsese brings the Golden Age of Hollywood to life like few other filmmakers have ever done. Further, I'd happily go on record as saying that The Aviator boasts some of the most exciting aerial footage ever filmed. I couldn't care less about how many of The Aviator's airborne sequences were lensed practically and how much of the onscreen dazzlement is done through computers; all I know is that whenever there's an airplane onscreen in this film, you can get ready to see something pretty spectacular.
And this cast, wow. It's a safe assumption to say that just about any actor in Hollywood would swim through lava to work on a Martin Scorsese production; heck, just a cursory look through the cast list of The Aviator can tell you that. As Hughes, Leonardo DiCaprio delivers one of his very best performances to date. And this is a guy who did some truly superlative work in films like What's Eating Gilbert Grape and Catch Me If You Can -- so I do think it's safe to stop referring to the guy as a pretty boy with questionable acting skills. Frankly I've never understood that complaint; I think Leo's always been a damn good actor, and only five random minutes of The Aviator could capably support that opinion. Cate Blanchett took home a well-deserved Oscar for her addictively entertaining portrayal of Katherine Hepburn, while the background of The Aviator is absolutely swollen with stellar supporting performances; John C. Reilly, Alan Alda, Alec Baldwin, Jude Law, Ian Holm... Solid actors working at the very top of their game, and again, this is the kind of thing that happens when Martin Scorsese is involved. (Even the generally miscast Kate Beckinsale proves herself worthy of inclusion in this cast. She's astonishingly easy on the eyes, and she can actually act! Those who say through Van Helsing might be shocked to agree with me here.)
The Aviator is not a surface-deep Lifetime Channel-esque biopic in the vein of Ray or Veronica Guerin; Scorsese does not deify his subject or editorialize on why we should or should not admire the guy. But nor does the movie, despite its 170-minute running time, fill you with all the information you're hungering for. One would think that a nearly three-hour biographical epic could include at least a little snippet of the man's elder years -- but then that's me complaining about something that's not in the movie, when I really should stick to what is. (Plus that's clearly not the story that Mr. Scorsese wanted to tell, and who am I to tell him different?)
What is presented in The Aviator is more than entertaining and engrossing enough to keep you interested ... for at least 130 minutes or so. When you find that each successive Act III fade-out leaves you more than ready for the final credits, the film's power begins to diminish just a little bit. But hey, with this sort of beautiful production design, compelling dialogue, and pitch-perfect acting performances on display, one can forgive the movie for overstaying its welcome by a half hour or so. And it's most definitely a big step up from Gangs of New York, which means that Mr. Scorsese's next film should be staggeringly, outrageously, and stunningly great. (It's called The Departed, and it's a remake (of the Asian cop flick Infernal Affairs) which stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, and Mark Wahlberg!) Can't wait.
Video: A Widescreen Anamorphic (2.35:1) transfer that just leaps off your screen. Whether you're looking at huge, swooping airplanes, lush & luxurious penthouses, or the deep shocking blue of Kate Beckinsale's eyes, well, the flick looks just beautiful.
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, and you'll notice it most during the first-half aerial acrobatics. And I dare you to crank it up when Hughes crash-lands his plane into an apartment building. Also included is a French 2.0 track, as well as optional subtitles in English, French & Spanish.
Disc 1 offers an audio commentary with director Martin Scorsese, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and producer Michael Mann. And as an admitted commentary junkie, allow me to offer the opinion that very few filmmakers know how to give good commentary like Martin Scorsese. His love for the cinema (not just his movie, but all movies) just leaks out of every piece of anecdote and insight. He's like that ultra-smart uncle who knows everything about movies, and his commentaries are just a delight for a movie geek like me. The editor and the producer share some insightful comments as well, combining for a nearly three-hour yak-track that's as enlightening as it is informative. There are a few dry spots, and the fact that none of the participants were recorded in the same room saps some of the track's potential spontaneity, but fans of the film will not be disappointed by the wealth of information offered here..
Disc 2 is where you'll find the rest of the goodies, and the platter is fairly stocked with supplemental splendor.
Deleted Scene: Howard Tells Ava About His Car Accident - This is a clever little scene that got cut for no good reason that I can ascertain. Perhaps Mr. Scorsese didn't want his movie to go over the 170-minute mark. Heh. (1:38)
A Life Without Limits: The Making of The Aviator - Director Martin Scorsese, screenwriter John Logan, producer Graham King, and actors Leonardo DiCaprio, Alec Baldwin, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, Gwen Stefani, John C. Reilly and Alan Alda all get their chance to throw some love and sunshine towards the film and its (justifiably) lauded director. But this featurette's mainly a surface-deep thank-a-thon with very little specific insight into The Aviator's production. (11:30)
The Role of Howard Hughes in Aviation History - Ron Kaplan (of the National Aviation Hall of Fame), aviation enthusiast Ralph Huddlestone, air racer Skip Holm, Hughes biographers George J. Marrett, Donald L. Barlett & James B. Steele, actor Leonardo DiCaprio, screenwriter John Logan, aviation Hall-of-Famer Robert Hoover give some of the real-life perspective on Howard Hughes. Sure, much of this material is stuff you'll find in the movie, but it's always cool to hear the authors and pilots bring the anecdotes back to historical fact. (14:35)
Modern Marvels: Howard Hughes - A History Channel Documentary - If you've ever seen any episodes from the History Channel's Modern Marvels series, you know you're in for a presentation as educational as it is entertaining. And such is clearly the case here. A brief search of the History Channel website indicates to me that this particular "episode" never aired on their channel, so I'm pretty impressed when I assume that the network produced this excellent mini-doco exclusively for the DVD. Either way, it's a fantastic inclusion to this 2-disc set. You get your Hollywood-ized story via the main feature, and a whole lot more of the factual nitty-gritty with this extremely well-constructed featurette. (42:07)
The Affliction of Howard Hughes: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder - Leo D., OCD expert Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, and biographers Donald L. Barlett & James B. Steele discuss the very real and exceedingly problematic malady known as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and how it afflicted Mr. Hughes so terribly. Several "normal Joe" OCD sufferers are also on hand to share their experiences with the illness. Interesting stuff. (14:09)
OCD Panel Discussion with Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Scorsese and Howard Hughes' Widow Terry Moore - Recorded at UCLA on December 2nd, 2004, this chat panel also includes Dr. Schwartz and Dr. Peter Whybrow as moderator. A few movie clips are interspersed throughout the talk, but it's mostly Leo explaining how he was able to replicate Mr. Hughes' OCD "tics" while Dr. Schwartz explains the disease in further detail. The audio is a bit tinny here (and there are no English subtitles for this featurette), but it's still compelling enough to warrant a look. (14:50)
An Evening with Leonardo DiCaprio and Alan Alda - David Schwartz (no relation to the doctor) moderates an entertaining Q&A session with Leo and Hawkeye. The back and forth gets a little dry here and there, but anyone who's ever experienced a post-screening Q&A at a film festival will find this featurette enjoyably familiar. (28:05)
The Visual Effects of The Aviator - Visual Effects Supervisor / Second Unit Director Robert Legato gives us the scoop on the film's rather impressive special effects. Some are big & flashy, others are surprisingly subtle, and most of them are covered in this slick little featurette. Particularly fantastic is the segment on how the Hell's Angels footage was reproduced. (11:58)
Constructing The Aviator: The Work of Dante Ferretti - Producer Graham King and production designer (extraordinaire) Dante Ferretti discuss the massive task of bringing Golden Age Hollywood to cinematic life. (5:58)
Costuming The Aviator: The Work of Sandy Powell - Considering the era and the characters found in The Aviator, costume designer Sandy Powell must have had a lot of fun going to work on this project. And what a lot of work it was! (3:34)
The Age of Glamour: The Hair and Makeup of The Aviator - Chief makeup artist Morag Ross and head hair stylist Kathryn Blondell share their experiences on (and affection for) this particular project. Given the these women (and their crews, of course) were asked to recreate the Golden Days of Hollywood Glamour, they clearly approached the movie with equal parts excitement and artistry. Take a few random looks at Blanchett, Beckinsale and/or Stefani for a quick glimpse at the painstaking efforts that went into this part of the production. (8:05)
Scoring The Aviator: The Work of Howard Shore - Composer Howard Shore touches upon how he created each of The Aviator's rather distinct musical themes. Based on how much research and attention to the screenplay that Shore devotes to each project, it's not at all surprising that he's quickly becoming the go-to guy for the finest directors. (7:10)
The Wainwright Family - Loudon, Rufus and Martha - Three members of the Wainwright family were on hand to portray lounge singers from the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. Join Loudon for a few tune-filled minutes as he explains his role in the film, and those of his children, Rufus & Martha. Slight, but still pretty cool. (5:02)
The Aviator Soundtrack Spot - An advertisement for the soundtrack CD.
Stills Gallery - A nice, long collection of production snapshots that skip on by without you having to click away all night on the "next" button.
The Aviator is like a huge, delicious pizza that's just way too big for its own good. You can stick the extra pizza slices in to the fridge for later consumption, but a movie should be enjoyed all in one sitting. I certainly don't think that I could locate the 25-30 minutes that could have been excised to make The Aviator a stronger experience, but I still believe that the movie runs on a lot longer than it effectively needs to. Your mileage may vary of course, and I still have no problem whatsoever in giving this movie and DVD our Highly Recommended designation.