By all accounts, the making of Martin Scorsese's Gangs Of New York was an Olympian undertaking, only slightly less difficult and logistically challenging than the Allied invasion of Normandy. Most mere mortals would take an extended break after such a mammoth effort, but Scorsese has leaped madly back into the fray with The Aviator, another sprawling, two-fisted, larger-than-life American epic whose wings get a little burnt only because it dares to fly so close to the sun.
A frenzied, sometimes overreaching biopic that paints in bold colors on a huge canvas, the film stars a never-better Leonardo DiCaprio—as perfectly cast here as he was miscast in Gangs—as aviation giant and show-business mogul Howard Hughes. Kicking off with a bang, the film begins with a bravura string of setpieces involving Hughes's obsessive involvement in Hell's Angels (the Titanic of its day). The sequence peaks when Hughes takes to the crowded skies to shoot aerial scenes himself, in a jaw-dropping scene that suggests a child's fantasy of delirious flight rendered dazzlingly concrete. Yet even as Hughes conquers Hollywood, aviation, and a veritable who's who of filmdom's most glamorous leading ladies, the germophobia and obsessive-compulsive behavior that became his downfall linger in the background. Of course, any filmmaker who attempts to show, subjectively and cinematically, the horrors of mental illness runs the risk of lapsing into camp, but through deft filmmaking and acting, The Aviator subtly conveys how a simple doorknob can seem like a seething cesspool of bacteria, or how sharing a container of milk can become a sweeping romantic gesture. DiCaprio shares that milk with Cate Blanchett, who inhabits the role of Katharine Hepburn in a way that captures all her aristocratic New England haughtiness without ever devolving into caricature or impersonation. Hughes and Hepburn's poignantly etched relationship represents the film's emotional heart, as well as its subject's last, best chance for a genuine, reciprocal human relationship.
It's a measure of The Aviator's complexity and ambiguity that it can be read equally as a celebration of rugged, capitalist individualism and as a leftist critique of cutthroat free-market competition. Hughes emerges as a towering figure of Shakespearean depth, and Scorsese does justice to both the heroism and the tragedy of a man who was able to accomplish the superhuman, but couldn't master the most mundane aspects of simply being human. Hughes' obsessive-compulsive disorder gradually turned him into a reclusive hermit, doomed to live in constant fear and suspicion. But his obsessiveness and his mania for conquering the frightening world from which he eventually withdrew made him a legend.