He was an industrialist, an aircraft manufacturer, an inventor, a moviemaker, a multibillionaire, and, most of all, an aviator. The "aviator" moniker is an appropriate metaphor for Howard Hughes, a man who was unafraid of flying high and taking risks.
Martin Scorsese's big, old-fashioned look at the enigmatic entrepreneur, 2004's "The Aviator," is too long and disjointed to be a great film, but it is entertaining in bits and pieces. Scorsese is a craftsman who knows how to assemble a picture, even one as segmented as "The Aviator," and sometimes his films have reached that rarefied atmosphere referred to by film buffs as cinematic art. Certainly, "Raging Bull," "Taxi Driver," and "Goodfellas" can lay claim to touching upon artistry.
But "The Aviator" isn't art; it's good showmanship, and on HD DVD it provides a good show. Howard Hughes was a bigger-than-life character tailor-made for movie legends, and Scorsese uses every trick at his disposal to explore a big part of the man's life. Fortunately, Scorsese eschews too much stylish gimmicky--black-and-white photography, quick edits, juxtaposing musical tracks, shifting time frames, and the like--in favor of a straightforward, if subdivided, narrative worthy of the Hollywood films of the 1920s through late 40s that the movie references. His only gimmick is the color scheme, which I'll discuss later. Scorsese's strong suit in "The Aviator" is to recreate the era, down to the smallest detail, and to present it as though for the first time. It's a neat trick, given that books and films have already told Hughes's life numerous times. Moreover, the movie now looks better than ever in high definition.
For me, though, the weakest part of the movie may be the most ironic and controversial, Scorsese's casting of Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes. While DiCaprio was just about Hughes's age, around thirty, when the movie begins in the late 1920s, maybe a few years older than Hughes, he never seems quite old enough. DiCaprio always appears to be the perennial teenager, and while Hughes is supposed to age over twenty years in the film, DiCaprio doesn't look much different from beginning to end. In the movie, Hughes in his late forties looks like a teenage DiCaprio with a mustache. Worse, for me DiCaprio never takes command of a situation (or the screen) the way I imagine the real Hughes would do; DiCaprio just looks like a petulant, spoiled kid always trying to get his way. Perhaps this is how Hughes really was; I don't know. It just doesn't match what I've always seen as the public perception. Still, it's a minor personal quibble, and most viewers will probably find no complaint with DiCaprio. Certainly, Scorsese finds no fault with the actor, having chosen DiCaprio for his last few movies and, I understand, planning yet another.
Since Hughes was a celebrated real-life person as well as a celluloid fiction, let's start with some facts about the man, courtesy of the Encyclopedia Britannica: "U.S. manufacturer, aviator, and motion-picture producer much publicized for his aversion to publicity as well as for the uses to which he put his vast wealth.
He studied at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, and later at the Rice Institute of Technology, Houston. Orphaned at 17, he quit school and took control of his father's Hughes Tool Company, Houston. In 1926 he moved to Hollywood, where he produced 'Hell's Angels' (1930) and 'Scarface' (1932) and introduced Jean Harlow and Paul Muni to the screen. Later 'The Outlaw' (1941) introduced Jane Russell.
In 1948 he bought a controlling interest in RKO Pictures Corporation, sold the shares in 1953, bought the whole company in 1954, selling it again in 1955. He remained chairman of the board until 1957.
In the field of aviation he founded the Hughes Aircraft Company, Culver City, CA, using the profits to finance the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. On Sept. 12, 1935, in an airplane of his own design, he established the world's land plane speed record of 352.46 miles per hour. On Jan. 19, 1937, in the same craft, he averaged 332 miles per hour in lowering the transcontinental flight-time record to 7 hours 28 minutes. Flying a Lockheed 14, he circled the Earth in a record 91 hours 14 minutes in July 1938. From 1942 he worked on the design of an eight-engine, wooden flying boat intended to carry 750 passengers. In 1947 he piloted this machine on its only flight--one mile. Never an extrovert, Hughes went into complete seclusion in 1950, as the holder of 78 percent of the stock of Trans World Airlines."
Hughes was born in 1905 and died in 1976, but it is his first forty years or so that the movie covers, ending just before his virtual withdrawal from society. During this time, the movie centers on four major aspects of his life: His obsession with aircraft, his obsession with moviemaking, his obsession with women, and his obsession with germs. Although it's hard to say which of these obsessions did him the most harm (certainly the germ phobia but probably a combination of all four), none of them is really the subject of the story. The subject is Hughes himself, the charismatic loner who almost always got his way in everything he did.
Any one of the areas I mentioned above might have provided enough material for a normal-length movie, but Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan chose to go with a more diffuse composite of all four, leading to a movie 170 minutes long that gets rather bogged down in too many separate elements with too little cohesion, much like the director's "Gangs of New York" that preceded it. Fortunately, Scorsese's expertise at visualizing the film's creations and juggling all of its pieces, plus the film's topflight supporting cast, keep the viewer largely engaged by what's going to happen next.
No doubt a good part of one's enjoyment of the film is simply looking at it, which is where high definition plays its part in the home. Scorsese's spectacular replicating of aerial dogfights for Hughes's directorial debut, "Hell's Angels," is stunning. Then the elaborate première of "Hell's Angels," his recreation of the glamour of Hollywood, the interior of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub, Hughes's devastating crash while test flying one of his own planes, later Hughes's flight of the Hercules "Spruce Goose," and dozens of other memorable scenes all contribute to an epic motion picture worthy of a DeMille.
In addition to all of that, possibly most important of all is the supporting cast. Cate Blanchett won an Oscar for her portrayal of Katharine Hepburn, one of Hughes's first loves in Hollywood. Blanchett is, indeed, a dead ringer for the famous actress, especially in voice and mannerisms, but I'm not sure it isn't a mere imitation. Still, it's a very good and convincing imitation, much as Jamie Foxx turned in for Ray Charles, so I suppose it's all that one could hope for. As others of Hughes's girlfriends, Kate Beckinsale is good as Ava Gardner, Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow, and Kelli Garner as Faith Domergue.
Best of all, I thought, is John C. Reilly as Hughes's long-suffering right-hand man, Noah Dietrich. The actor has a common touch that is most appealing and a sense of rightness about him that is hard not to find sympathetic. Then, there's Alan Alda playing against type as the corrupt and conniving Senator Ralph Owen Brewster; Ian Holm as the meek, often-befuddled meteorologist Professor Fitz; Alec Baldwin as Hughes's relentless rival in the airlines business, Pan Am's Juan Tripp; and Jude Law in a bit part as the dashing Errol Flynn.
The Academy nominated the movie for eleven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, and it won five: Best Art Direction (Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo); Best Cinematography (Robert Richardson); Best Costume Design (Sandy Powell); Best Editing (Thelma Schoonmaker); and Best Supporting Actress (Cate Blanchett).
Regardless of the fact that "The Aviator" may not be Scorsese's best work, it is unquestionably a creative piece of moviemaking. It is not the director's best work because it never rises to a high enough level of intimacy with its subject to allow that; but its never-ending stream of visual delights and its outstanding examples of individual acting help to pull its segmented configuration together sufficiently to attract and keep one's attention. Like it or hate it, there's no denying Scorsese crafts its various passages well. Whether they hold together in their entirety is a matter of individual taste. I went away satisfied that I'd remember quite a few moments from the movie for a very long time.
To begin with, note that Scorsese says he purposely wanted the early part of the movie, the first hour or so of the late 1920s, to look as though he had filmed it in the two-strip Technicolor process of the day and later, after the first hour, he wanted the movie to look more like vivid three-strip Technicolor. So, no, it's not your television set that's going out; the color will vary considerably from faded aquas and oranges at first to gloriously rich, deep, full hues later on.
The video engineers transferred the picture to disc in the movie's original theatrical ratio of 2.40:1, although on my set it measures about 2.20:1, a little less wide than I expected. In any case, you'll find the image well delineated in its VC-1, 1080 encode, and unlike its standard-definition counterpart, you shouldn't notice any oversaturation of the colors, which before seemed a tad too dark and too bright. Indeed, facial tones are now especially natural, blacks solid, inner detailing strong, and everything pretty much glistening. As I say, at first you'll notice an odd, subdued color palette and a degree of softness about the picture, but this was Scorsese's intention. After the first hour, the color opens up brilliantly.
For audio we get Dolby Digital Plus 5.1. Why no Dolby TrueHD? I can only guess that either Warner Bros. didn't feel the sound needed it, that a high-bit-rate DD+ track could accomplish the job, or that there wasn't room for it, given the huge number of bonus items along with the lengthy movie. Be that as it may, the DD+ is fine, with a front-channel stereo spread that is exemplary and an excellent overall clarity. Notwithstanding, the soundtrack uses the surround channels primarily for musical ambiance enhancement and only the occasional flying sequence. This isn't an action movie, after all, so mainly the sound has to reproduce dialogue, which it does admirably. Moreover, the bass and dynamic impact are good, without being overpowering. Actually, this might have also been a part of Scorsese's intention, to the give the film an old-timey feel without actually sounding old-timey. Frankly, I didn't miss anything in the audio and thought the sound matched the goings on more than adequately.
The HD DVD contains most of the extras found on the two-disc standard-definition edition. Contrary to the announcement on the set's keep case, however, which says the commentary is by director Martin Scorsese alone, the commentary is actually by Scorsese, film editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and producer Michael Mann, as stated in the disc menu. They appear to have recorded their comments separately, though, because there is no interaction among them. Appropriately, Scorsese gets the bulk of the air time, and like the other two he uses it to advantage, providing a wealth of background information and research. Interestingly, Scorsese himself seemed to have been as obsessed as Hughes, in Scorsese's case with getting the look of the film right--the color scheme for the various decades, the clothing, the sets. Also, there are sometimes long pauses between comments by the three participants, but when they do speak, it' usually substantive. Mann, by the way, was originally to have directed the film but bowed out because he didn't want to do yet another biography (he had just done "Ali"), opting to co-produce instead. It's unusual, therefore, to have two such prominent directors commenting on the same movie. Good stuff.
Now, here is a rundown on what else is available on the HD DVD, all of it except the trailer in standard definition. First, there's a brief, minute-and-a-half deleted scene, "Howard Tells Ava About His Car Accident." It's not much, but it's in widescreen. There follows a series of featurettes and documentaries. The first of these is "A Life Without Limits: The Making of The Aviator." It's eleven minutes long, wherein the filmmakers talk up the picture during and after its production. Second is "The Role of Howard Hughes in Aviation History," fourteen minutes, mostly self explanatory but highlighting Hughes's accomplishments in aircraft design and flight, with shots from the film and from vintage footage. Third is a History Channel documentary, "Modern Marvels: Howard Hughes," forty-three minutes long and typical of the History Channel's presentations, repeating some of the things in the previous featurette. Fourth is "The Affliction of Howard Hughes: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder," fourteen minutes of explanation on OCD, highlighting Hughes's phobias and compulsions. The fifth featurette is a fourteen-minute panel discussion of OCD with Leonardo DiCaprio; Martin Scorsese; Howard Hughes's widow, actress and author Terry Moore; and Doctors Peter Whybrow and Jeffrey Schwartz. Sixth is a twenty-eight minute featurette, "An Evening With Leonardo DiCaprio and Alan Alda," moderated by David Schwartz. Seventh is "The Visual Effects of The Aviator," twelve minutes with Robert Legato, the film's visual effects supervisor and its second-unit director. Eighth is a featurette called "Constructing The Aviator: The Work of Dante Ferretti," six minutes with the celebrated art designer. Ninth is "Costuming The Aviator: The Work of Sandy Powell," three minutes. Tenth is "The Age of Glamour: The Hair and Makeup of The Aviator," eight minutes with Morag Ross, the film's chief makeup artist. Eleventh is "Scoring The Aviator: The Work of Howard Shore," seven minutes examining the film's music with its composer. Twelfth is a five-minute segment with "The Wainwright Family--Loudon, Rufus, and Martha," musicians who participated in the Coconut Grove sequence. A theatrical trailer in high def, a soundtrack album spot, and a stills gallery round things off.
The extras conclude with thirty-two scene selections but no chapter insert; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. As usual, Warners also include their usual HD DVD goodies: pop-up menus, bookmarks, a zoom-and-pan function, a guide to elapsed time, and an Elite Red HD case.
"The Aviator" is a good film without being a great film. At nearly three hours, it's a big, sprawling picture that tries to cover too much ground in too many small slices to add up to a very well-focused whole. And I still don't think Leonardo DiCaprio has enough screen presence to hold our attention for so long. Yet, that said, there is enough spectacle in the individual episodes (particularly in HD), enough good acting in the supporting roles, and enough absorbing history throughout to keep one's attention for the better part of the time. "The Aviator" is a middle-echelon Scorsese effort, not in the class of "Goodfellas" or "Raging Bull" or even his more-recent Oscar-winner, "The Departed." Nonetheless, "The Aviator" is rewarding on its own terms.