The Aviator (12A)

Leo fails to take off
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The Independent Culture

According to Martin Scorsese's long and reverential biopic The Aviator, Howard Hughes was a classic megalomaniac-as-visionary: he was the Citizen Kane of the skies, with ambitions and flaws the size of Xanadu.

According to Martin Scorsese's long and reverential biopic The Aviator, Howard Hughes was a classic megalomaniac-as-visionary: he was the Citizen Kane of the skies, with ambitions and flaws the size of Xanadu. We are given an early indication of how this control-freak superman operates during the making of his First World War dogfight epic Hell's Angels, a movie that he has already spent two years and millions of dollars trying to get off the ground. Frustrated by the clear, blue skies of California, the 24-year-old Hughes hires a university meteorologist (Ian Holm) to help out. "Find me some clouds", he orders the bemused professor, as though bossing the weather were simply an extension of bossing a film set.

You can see why Hughes might attract a film-maker like Scorsese: there's his audacity as a movie maverick; the genius for flying; the reckless gambling with his fortune; the frantic bedhopping with Hollywood starlets; the struggle with "personal demons" and - a signature Scorsese motif - the withdrawal into loneliness and obsession. These are fertile territories for a biopic to chart, but the central burden of The Aviator is plainly too demanding for the narrow capabilities of Leonardo DiCaprio. True, he's about the right age for the younger Hughes, and will perhaps attract a movie-going demographic that would be otherwise indifferent to the life of a shadowy playboy billionaire. But DiCaprio remains a lightweight presence, a cherubic man-child who one could sooner imagine fiddling with an Airfix set and glue than spearheading the adventure of modern aviation.

His callowness looks particularly misplaced next to Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn, who advises Hughes early on not to give himself away to the public, else "they'll turn us into freaks". He will soon prove himself able to attain that state without the public's help. Blanchett enjoys herself in the role, catching Hepburn's humorous drawl and horsey elegance, though she looks as if she could eat Leo for breakfast. The other dalliances in his life barely register at all. Gwen Stefani as platinum-haired Jean Harlow looks petrified, while Kate Beckinsale's impersonation of Ava Gardner is a non-starter. While he kept the latter under surveillance with bugs and phone-taps, Hughes never actually seems interested in women, which may be the point, but the lack of romance leaves a mighty swathe of screentime to fill (the film runs just shy of three hours).

Scorsese occupies it in two distinct ways. The first is to investigate his subject's unfortunate psychopathology. Never much at ease with people, Hughes was hampered by a deafness that put an invisible wall between himself and the world. But his true cross was a paralysing form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, evidenced in trips to the bathroom where he washes his hands so fiercely they bleed.

Dining at a Hollywood hotspot, a drunk Errol Flynn (Jude Law) plonks himself at the table and steals a pea from Hughes's plate: from the look of nauseous outrage Hughes turns on him, Flynn might just as well have snorted up a bogey on to the tablecloth. Later, Hughes takes Ava Gardner back to his apartment, which, festooned with criss-crossing tape, looks like a police crime scene gone mad - apparently his intention was to seal off "germs". "Love what you've done with the place," Ava deadpans. Where this fearfulness came from is uncertain, though it probably didn't help that his mother warns him as a child "you are not safe" - the movie covers only half of Hughes's life, before he became the hairy recluse of legend, though we see enough of his tumultuous paranoia to feel grateful that it ends where it does.

The other strand of the movie concerns Hughes's grandiose plans for TransWorld Airlines and his rivalry with Pan Am boss Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin). Scorsese's screenwriter, John Logan, wants to remind us that these twin titans are carving up aviation history between them, yet their big moment together hinges upon whether a particular design detail will feature "buttons or zippers". I suppose the banality might be deliberate - their competitiveness is all-consuming - but it makes for dialogue of unearthly dullness.

As the talk turns to choosing between Europe and South America as the best way forward for commercial travel, you begin to realise: this is really a story for the business pages. It sure as hell isn't one for a three-hour biopic. Casting around for a villain, they wheel on Alan Alda as Owen Brewster, a smugly corrupt senator who's trying to ruin Hughes over contracts the latter failed to meet during the war. This, too, involves some epically tedious confrontation scenes, the import of which are muffled in any case by Hughes's even queasier confrontation with the trout Brewster serves him for lunch.

Stuck for a climax, Scorsese cuts between the ding-dong at a Senate War Committee (recriminations batted sluggishly back and forth) and Hughes's quixotic attempt to test-fly his enormous plane, The Hercules. Neither manages the sense of triumph that's intended, partly because these are footnotes to history that pretend to be life-justifying moments, and partly because that life never truly gains a hold on our sympathy. What feels most dismaying about The Aviator, however, is that it comes from a film-maker whose incendiary creations - Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta, Rupert Pupkin, Henry Hill - once blazed off the screen. However tormented, or obsessive, or repellent, they forced you to take notice, and sometimes to take pity. No one would deny that Howard Hughes was troubled, but Martin Scorsese seems no longer possessed of the ingenuity to wonder why - or to make us care.