USA today - December 16, 2004


'The Aviator' takes off brilliantly and just keeps soaring

by Mike Clark


Howard Hughes gained early fame as a maverick filmmaker who romanced his pick of Hollywood women after inheriting millions he chronically overspent. He later designed and crashed planes with equal flamboyance, plus brainstormed the mechanics of Jane Russell's full-figured bra for The Outlaw before he started to go mad.

If you're thinking this is a story Martin Scorsese just might be able to do something with oh, does he ever in The Aviator. But if you're thinking that Hughes doesn't sound like a role made for Leonardo DiCaprio, you're as wrong as I was before seeing the film.

Despite the film's sporadic lulls, both director and star are on full beam. The first and third hours of this 20th-century epic are as dazzling as big-scale movies get.

Screenwriter John Logan wisely limits the action to a roughly two-decade time span: the filming of 1930's bank-busting Hell's Angels (just out on DVD) to Hughes getting airborne (once) in the Spruce Goose, which was thought to be unflyable. With the full story Texas background, ownership of RKO, the famed Clifford Irving Hughes memoir hoax the movie would have had more problems with unwieldiness than Scorsese and DiCaprio's Gangs of New York.

The picture is still stuffed, though not overstuffed. Hughes romances Katharine Hepburn, deliciously played by Cate Blanchett in a performance broad enough to be a stitch but not so broad as to be a cartoon.

Later, he takes up with Kate Beckinsale's Ava Gardner the one performance that doesn't come off (though Beckinsale has the requisite beauty).

On the guy front, Hughes, who ran TWA, battles Pan Am's Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) for a monopoly over the international skies. This leads to one of The Aviator's two scenes that rank with the greatest in recent memory: Hughes making mincemeat of Maine Sen. Ralph Owen Brewster (a never-better Alan Alda) at a congressional hearing on corruption in the awarding of World War II-era government contracts.

The other hall-of-fame scene is the Beverly Hills plane crash that almost killed Hughes and probably exacerbated the dementia, germophobia and gone-to-seed appearance of his final reclusive decades. It's spectacular in all senses, but in this movie, spectacle rules throughout.

A magnificent DiCaprio fully captures Hughes' drive and intensity yet also makes you see how, before he went fully over the brink, someone so impossible was also genuinely liked by so many.

I wish Scorsese could have trimmed 10 or 15 minutes from the running time; overlength is the only thing that keeps The Aviator from being the year's best movie. But even as it is, it's the year's most exciting by a wide margin.