The Aviator (12A)

The Goose is big and the ride bumpy - but this movie flies
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Calling a film about Howard Hughes The Aviator is a little like calling one about Toulouse-Lautrec The Painter, just to remind you that he was more than a diminutive French lech. The tagline for Martin Scorsese's Hughes biopic is, "Some men dream the future. He built it", which sums up The Aviator's mission: to rehabilitate its subject as something more than the paranoid moneybags and wolfman recluse of legend. This admiring portrait is of Hughes the designer, builder and flier of aeroplanes, the Promethean risk-taker and the feverish perfectionist.

In one glimpse of Hughes's obsessive-compulsive nature, he orders chocolate-chip cookies: medium-sized chips, not too close to the edge of the cookie. But as with any film-maker aiming for perfection, what counts with Hughes is the scope of the obsession. Hughes nurtures the big picture - the dream of the mammoth new aeroplane, say - but he's equally concerned about the tiny details, such as the rivets on the fuselage.

Would that a film about perfectionism were itself a perfect film; but then we expect wonders of Scorsese that we don't of other directors. If The Aviator had been made, as originally planned, by Michael Mann (who has stayed on as a producer), no doubt it would seem entirely marvellous. Because it's a Scorsese film, it's hard not to feel disappointed: The Aviator can't possibly match up to the extraordinary ambitions Scorsese sets for it.

John Logan's script offers little scabrous tabloid horror. There is plenty about Hughes's encroaching dementia and moments of private terror; in a somewhat dreamlike sequence, the beleaguered tycoon retreats into his screening room to wrestle with his demons, grow his hair and toenails, and fill several milk bottles with his urine. His decline is presaged, but the film's principal fascination is with Hughes at his height - as air ace, romancer and film-maker.

Remarkably, The Aviator is Scorsese's first non-documentary film to deal directly with cinema. Its first section covers the making of Hughes's 1930 air epic Hell's Angels, a wildly expensive film that he shot and shot, then reshot for the new sound era. Hell's Angels comes across as a magnificent, apparently impossible folly that, thanks to its director's obsession, is completed nevertheless: it's hard not to think of Scorsese's own Gangs of New York. Hell's Angels figures here as an ideal of what can be achieved if a director maintains autonomy, by contrast with Gangs, which bears the scars of Scorsese's thorny relations with producer Harvey Weinstein. Scorsese is surely exploring every director's fantasy of being a Hughes: at once the childlike auteur at play and your own producer, totally indulgent and with bottomless pockets.

But Hell's Angels is first and foremost exemplary here of cinema's former audacity. Needing clouds for his dogfight sequences, Hughes hires a meteorologist, waits months, then uproots his set to go where the clouds are; today, you'd paint the clouds in digitally. Scorsese himself happily uses digitals in an exhilarating aerial ballet, in which Hughes's plane appears to fly straight through the camera and out the other side. This is not, however, a modern film-maker trying to outdo his forebears, but Scorsese's proud tribute to a pioneer: this, thanks to Hughes, is what can be done today.

It's no surprise what else flying means: Hughes's H-1 racer is outrageously phallic, any ambiguity dispelled by shots of him in the cockpit, joystick clasped between his legs. Aviation is also the key to his love life. A nocturnal joyride over Beverly Hills wins Katharine Hepburn's heart: Hughes gently guides her hands at the wheel, in the film's one genuinely erotic moment.

Otherwise, the film rarely gives a sense of what makes Hughes irresistible to sirens like Hepburn or Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale: dead-on feline delivery, but otherwise pallid). Leonardo DiCaprio's Hughes is oddly short on sexual magnetism, or even - except when mesmerising a nightclub cigarette girl - confidence. Rather than the mature saturnine Hughes familiar from photos, we see a tetchy eager-beaver spouting boy-scout idioms ("That is a chunk of change," he muses, about to spend $13 million on TWA). Besides, DiCaprio still rarely looks more than 12: especially as the older, hairier Hughes, he's like a boy trying on Daddy's best tweeds. It's an incidental problem, but it's a shame, since in all other respects - in terms of intensity and subtle modulation - DiCaprio's performance is very strong indeed, with a tough, knowing artfulness.

Hughes needs a backdrop of clouds for his planes in Hell's Angels, because otherwise, he says, there's "no sense of relative motion." That's the dramatic flaw in The Aviator: too few characters to measure Hughes's own relative motion. One is Cate Blanchett's Hepburn, who makes the film ignite whenever she's on screen. At first it seems a broad, gamey impersonation, but once you're over the initial shock, it's a rich characterisation: a bluestocking buccaneer, defending her nervous core with a sporty swagger and silvery stage laugh.

The only other character allowed real presence is Alan Alda's viciously amiable Owen Brewster, the corrupt senator who ran a hearing designed to stop Hughes competing with Pan-Am. Hughes's courtroom railing at Brewster has a stirring Capra-esque ring - "I am only a private citizen whereas you are a senator with all sorts of powers" - yet the film makes it easy to forget that Hughes was no regular Joe facing up to corporate bullies, but an industrial titan with "all sorts of powers" of his own. Beyond the odd gesture in this direction, The Aviator gives little sense of Hughes's ruthlessness, or of his political position, briefly hinted at when he threatens to expose a scandal-rag hack for attending Communist meetings.

Not that Scorsese wants Hughes to be a villain - certainly, no more of one than the anti-hero of Citizen Kane, of which The Aviator is an indirect remake. The film opens with its own "Rosebud" moment, a mythic glimpse of the boy Howard and his over-protective mother. The ending, as Hughes finally flies his legendary colossus, the Hercules "Spruce Goose", seems anti-climactic but is surely intended to - a pyrrhic victory after which he is left alone, staring into the void. It's a properly Scorsesean touch, pulling the rug of affirmation and resolution from under our feet; but it has to suffice in place of a more complex sense of the Faustian component in Hughes's career.

If it doesn't follow through dramatically, The Aviator is always richly watchable. Dante Ferretti's production design is consistently imposing, often breathtaking; Sandy Powell provides a vintage couture extravaganza; and director of photography Robert Richardson pulls off the dazzling conceit of recreating early colour stocks for different periods, limiting the palette so that in a 1930s sequence, peas on a plate resemble cobalt-blue headache pills. Visually at least, The Aviator gives us Scorsese directing at full tilt, with invention and passion, and sometimes - as with the flawed Gangs - you just have to shrug and say, what more could you want?