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The Aviator - Blu-ray Review

The Aviator

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4.5 out of 5

HOWARD Hughes was a giant in every sense of the word. A tireless perfectionist, the billionaire businessman owned, at various points in his life, an international airline (TWA), two regional airlines, an aircraft company, a major motion picture studio, gambling casinos and hotels in Vegas and a vast amount of real estate.

His passion for aviation led him to break several speed records and compelled him to build and pilot the world’s largest airplane, The Spruce Goose, while his love for movies saw him produce and direct classics such as Hell’s Angels, Scarface and The Front Page.

Yet behind the brash surface of a man who also courted some of the prettiest women of his generation (including Ava Gardner, Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers) lay a deeply troubled soul, whose own anxieties and insecurities forced him to become a recluse.

By the time of his death, in 1976, he had not been seen publicly or photographed for 20 years.

Needless to say, a film of such a life is, by its very nature, an ambitious undertaking, and Martin Scorsese steps up to the task with considerable aplomb to deliver a rousing, crowd-pleasing and memorable depiction of one of the greatest minds of the 20th Century.

His film may clock in at a little under three hours, but is frequently as high-flying as Hughes himself thanks to some genuinely breath-taking set pieces and a number of terrific performances.

First and foremost there is Leonardo DiCaprio, as the man himself, who delivers a tour-de-force, effortlessly casting aside any doubts about his capability to play such a prolific character.

Rather like Jamie Foxx in Ray, DiCaprio lives and breathes Hughes, from his inspiring passion for whatever captivates him, to his awkward phobias that threaten to handicap him.

He is both charismatic and egotistical, striking a near-perfect balance between the various mental states that made Hughes such an enigma.

And only rarely does his youthful appearance get in the way of his credibility.

Yet he is not alone in the performance stakes, as this is a movie as rich in star turns as it is in grandiose set-pieces.

Cate Blanchett perfectly captures the boldness and charm of Katharine Hepburn, while Alec Baldwin provides an equally compelling nemesis in the form of Pan Am boss, Juan Trippe.

Strong, too, is Alan Alda, as another of Hughes’ adversaries, Senator Owen Brewster, while John C Reilly is typically reliable as Hughes’ loyal, long-suffering right-hand man, Noah Dietrich.

Cameos from the likes of Jude Law (as Errol Flynn), Kate Beckinsale (as Ava Gardner) and Ian Holm (as Professor Fitz), also add to the overall richness of what’s on show.

And yet the plaudits aren’t merely reserved for the cast, given the quality of Robert Richardson’s superb cinematography, and the brilliance of Scorsese’s direction (who, ironically, suffers from a fear of heights).

Casting aside the relative disappointment of his Gangs of New York, Scorsese sets about delivering a five-star showpiece of a movie that frequently soars.

The filming of the memorable Hell’s Angels dogfight sequence is an early jaw-dropper, as is the depiction of Hughes’ devastating plane crash in Beverley Hills, which almost killed him.

The verbal fireworks between DiCaprio and Alda also set the screen alight, yet are neatly offset by quieter moments, such as the intimate moments between Hughes and Hepburn.

And while the film might not succeed in delivering a definitive version of the Hughes persona (for anyone who really wants to find out what made him tick or how he came to be inspired by film and flying), it does present an exhilirating and occasionally painful expose of the man at the peak of his celebrity (finishing just after the historic flight of his Spruce Goose).

It is a magnificent achievement that really ought to land some impressive trophies come the awards season.

The Aviator is released by Miramax for the first time on Blu-ray on Monday, September 19, 2011.