Martin Scorsese’s last film, 2002’s Gangs of New York, was greeted with the kind of reverence usually reserved for a papal visit, or perhaps a Ken Burns documentary on PBS. It was an event, we were told, the product of an artist’s unrelenting passion, brought to the screen after years and years of research, preparation and backbreaking labor. It was meticulous, detailed and majestic.
It was also not a great movie. Huge in scope but lacking so much as one powerful central conflict, Gangs needed 10 hours — not 160-some minutes — to fully explore all the characters, subplots and historical footnotes that streaked across the screen. It also needed a hero more striking than the seemingly shell-shocked Leonardo DiCaprio.
By contrast, Scorsese’s new film The Aviator — chronicling the early-to-middle adult life of the impudent, unstable billionaire Howard Hughes — feels as if it were tossed off in a weekend or two, the product of an inspired, instinctual, go-for-broke artistic sensibility. If Gangs was easier to admire than enjoy, this new film is just the opposite: A glossy, opulent exercise in old-Hollywood style, with miles and miles of alluring surface texture and just enough depth to keep it from evaporating from memory. Anchoring it all is none other than DiCaprio, fleet-footed where he was once leaden, confident where he was once uncertain. He’s so good, one wonders if, from now on, the young actor should make a promise to only star in period films involving major forms of transportation.
The version of Hughes’ life presented in Gladiator scribe John Logan’s screenplay doesn’t immediately seem like Scorsese material. Hughes dabbled in filmmaking — directing the Top Gun of its day, 1930’s Hell’s Angels, and the lusty 1943 western The Outlaw, both recounted here — but he wasn’t a great filmmaker. He fought corporate monopolies, but he was a raging opportunist; he had passionate convictions, but he was a largely ineffectual germophobe (and, later in life, a reclusive lunatic). But with The Aviator, Scorsese is able to take his encyclopedic knowledge of films from the ’30s and ’40s and put it to use whenever it suits him, referencing melodramas, screwball comedies, high-flying adventures and even film noir. Whether he’s tinting new footage to blend in seamlessly with old newsreels of the era, or directing Cate Blanchett to give an eerily spot-on impersonation of Hughes’ one-time love Katharine Hepburn, Scorsese is in complete command of his craft. There’s perhaps no other American director who could make repeated scenes of hand-washing — reminiscent of his classic short film The Big Shave — seem as suspenseful as death-defying aerial dogfights.
Still, The Aviator doesn’t approach the complexities of Scorsese’s best work. As it’s presented, Hughes’ obsessive-compulsive disorder seems at times a little too pat, or too clinical — in other words, nothing a little Paxil wouldn’t cure. The film is too beholden to the rise-and-fall-and-triumphant-comeback structure of the biopic, and it’s hamstrung by at least one unconvincing performance (nice-girl Kate Beckinsale, trying in vain to channel the moxie of Ava Gardner). But it’s a joy to see Scorsese finally have his cake and eat it too, taking all of the opportunities afforded by a huge Hollywood budget, and making a spectacular, artistically satisfying blockbuster. He’s tried to wrangle huge productions more than once before, with such films as Gangs and 1977’s weird, depressive musical, New York, New York. Only now, in telling the story of a man who let his ambitions get the best of him, is Scorsese able to keep his own in check.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].