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Just before World War I, the young Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) inherits a fortune in the shape of his father's drill bit company. He begins to use up rather a lot of that fortune on a war movie set in the air, Hell's Angels, doing his own aerial stunts and starting to design his own planes. Working outside the studios, Hughes is regarded as a reckless outsider, especially when he decides to reshoot the film with sound - his first but not last visionary decision. The film's success brings him celebrity status and the company of stars like Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and later Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale). His affairs with both end in separation - but both women retain an affection for him. Not so Pan Am boss Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin). As Hughes reaches further and further into the future with his aviation plans and his revolutionary designs, Trippe and his Senate lap dog, Senator Owen Brewster (Alan Alda) force a Senate Committee hearing designed to stop Hughes' TWA from competing on major international routes. But Hughes, despite his unstable mental condition, refuses to buckle.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
The chances of another Howard Hughes coming along in these over-regulated and politically constricted times is as remote as pigs flying - unless Hughes had the pigs under contract. The man's towering achievements and deep neuroses make for a fascinating, fantastic and far reaching film. If it weren't based on a real person, no-one would dare write such a character for fear of being locked up. The writer, not the character.

But of course even with the writing talents of John Logan and filmmaking passion of Martin Scorsese, we don't understand Howard Hughes. Who could. But we understand about Howard Hughes, and the difference is that we know why he is beyond understanding on the sort of level we are used to in cinematic heroes.

The film is the shortest 170 minute film I've ever seen. The screenplay, the editing and the sheer determination of the filmmakers in capturing this exceptional man on the screen make it a wonderfully gripping experience. It excels in every department, from design and FX to Howard Shore's great score.

And then there are the performances: Leonardo DiCaprio manages to bridge the apparently unbridgeable gaps from Hughes' inspired aviator to insipid neurotic, wringing his soaped hands in anguish at the bathroom basin in a morbid fear of germs. The first scene shows us a naked young Howard being washed down by his mother as he stands in a wash basin, murmuring warnings about disease. The scene suggests that his phobia was born under his mother's care, presumably with repetitions of that scene. I prefer to think that he was slightly unbalanced and this sort of motherly protectiveness simply gave his state of mind some fuel.

But the performance cuts through any reservations when we see him in contrary circumstances, one moment the brilliant engineer and the next the hopeless recluse shut in his chaotic private office, ordering milk and food - in paper bags held at 45 degrees so he wouldn't contaminate his hand touching the bag.

The story soars into flight from the start, from when he was the young billionaire heir, to the pioneer aviator and maverick filmmaker, at a time when Hollywood was glowing in its golden haze, the mid 20s to the late 40s. DiCaprio draws us in despite the character's dark complexity and our resistance to his less than charming moments. But we are mentally seduced by the man's evident intelligence and sincerity. DiCaprio has it all to show.

Around him, other sensational performances prop up the film's proud ambitions. Cate Blanchett is mesmerising as Katharine Hepburn (disconcertingly called Kate for much of the film), so effortlessly capturing the young Kate yet never turning the performance into an impression or impersonation. It's all genuine, solid gold characterisation.

John C. Reilly as his business manager, Noah, has the hardest support role, playing a man who is simply there. He does it superbly, while Alan Alda gets to play against type as the unscrupulous Senator Owen Brewster, in the pay of Hughes' rival, Pan Am chief Juan Trippe, played with great depth by Alec Baldwin. Alda lets the words and the camera do the work in an understated yet devastating portrayal of a greedy, power hungry, hypocritical and self serving politician.

All the supports, including one scene cameos like Jude Law's Errol Flynn, are superb, and the mood of the film tangibly creates the period without fussy overstatements. Howard Hughes, paraphrased on screen like this, is not a person with whom we can fall in love, but we certainly empathise with him. With Gangs of New York, DiCaprio and Scorsese came close to making a masterpiece; with The Aviator, they might just have got there.

The DVD package delves into this scientist, daredevil, test pilot, innovator and filmmaker, the subject of The Aviator, with the multiple views of documentarians and some of the filmmakers. This isn't some glib collection of extras like a repackaged EPK, but a serious exploration of one of the most fascinating characters of modern history. Howard Hughes' continuously exploding life is dissected and revealed as a subject of great interest - but the material also illuminates the background to the film. Intelligent and absorbing, this two disc set is a real treasure.

All of the extras are worth your time, and when you watch the session with Alan Alda and Leonardo diCaprio, see if you can spot the microphone switch early in diCaprio's comments - and work out what happened....

June 23, 2005

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CAST: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, John C. Reilly, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, Ian Holm, Danny Huston, Gwen Stafeani, Jude Law, Edward Herrmann, Willem Dafoe

PRODUCER: Sandy Climan, Charles Evans jr, Graham King, Michael Mann

DIRECTOR: Martin Scorsese

SCRIPT: John Logan

CINEMATOGRAPHER: Robert Richardson

EDITOR: Thelma Schoonmaker

MUSIC: Howard Shore


RUNNING TIME: 163 minutes


AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: February 10, 2005

PRESENTATION: widescreen

SPECIAL FEATURES: Disc 1: commentary by Martin Scorsese, Thelma Schoonmaker, Michael Mann; Disc 2: Deleted scene; Making of the film; Howard Hughes in Aviation History; Howard Hughes (History Channel feature); Howard Hughes and obsessive compulsive disorder; visual effects; hair and make up; costumes; construction; An Evening with Leonardo DiCaprio and Alan Alda; panel discussion with diCaprio, Scorsese, Hughes' widow; the score with Howard Shore; The Wainwright Family; stills

DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Warner Home Video

DVD RELEASE: June 8, 2005

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