On Dec. 17, 2004, Miramax unveiled Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator in theaters, where it would go on to gross $213 million worldwide. The film earned 11 Oscar nominations at the 77th Academy Awards, winning five honors including cinematography, art direction and best supporting actress for Cate Blanchett. The Hollywood Reporter‘s original review is below.
After years of being relegated to small-screen renderings (The Amazing Howard Hughes) or quirky supporting roles (Melvin and Howard), the inimitable billionaire industrialist finally has been provided with a canvas expansive enough to contain his numerous larger-than-life persona courtesy of Martin Scorsese and The Aviator.
Working with many of his previous collaborators, Scorsese has crafted a rip-roaringly gorgeous-looking, beautifully acted biographical epic that is certain to garner Oscar nominations across the board.
But while firing on all cylinders, there’s something oddly distancing about the picture that ultimately prevents the viewer from being taken along on its emotionally turbulent journey.
Still, if we have to be content to wave admiringly from the sidelines, there’s an embarrassment of cinematic riches to appreciate, and Miramax should have little problem translating the inevitable awards season goodwill (Warner Bros. is handling the film internationally) into high-flying numbers.
Long before Donald Trump, Richard Branson and reality TV, there was the man who wrote the book on driven, compelling billionaire businessmen, and Leonardo DiCaprio nails his subject with an assured bravado and focused energy. It’s the actor’s most accomplished turn to date and easily quells skeptics’ worries that he wasn’t the right man for the part.
Following a brief but character-defining childhood prologue, the script by John Logan (Gladiator) dives right into the filming of Hell’s Angels in the late 1920s, the costly aerial epic the naively ambitious heir financed with earnings from the family company, Hughes Tool.
The picture would make Hughes, barely in his mid-20s, a celebrity who would often be spotted courting glamour girls at the famed Cocoanut Grove nightclub. But despite counting Katharine Hepburn (a perfectly pitched Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (a similarly adept Kate Beckinsale) among his steady supply of amorous interests, none would be able to compete with Hughes’ one true love — aviation.
Given that Scorsese is known for a lifelong fear of flying, the director (who took on the project after Michael Mann stepped down) throws irony to the wind, and, introducing some impressive digital effects work late in his career, delivers a series of spectacular sequences, from recreations of that Hell’s Angels footage to Hughes’ devastating plane crash into a Beverly Hills neighborhood.
Despite all those lofty events, which are propelled along with the help of newsreel audio, Scorsese and Logan manage to keep the storytelling grounded, moving some events around when necessary to incorporate Hughes’ disturbing behavior as it progressed above and beyond mere eccentricity.
With the exception of some of those later scenes in which he physically fails to appear convincing as a man in his 40s, DiCaprio turns in a robust, fully realized performance.
Aside from Blanchett and Beckinsale, there also are colorful turns by Alec Baldwin as Hughes’ rival, Pan Am visionary Juan Trippe; Alan Alda as Hughes’ adversary, Sen. Owen Brewster; and the always reliable John C. Reilly as his loyal if beleaguered right-hand man, Noah Dietrich.
Technical attributes abound, from Robert Richardson’s dazzling, Technicolor-approximated cinematography to Dante Ferretti’s lavish production design to Sandy Powell’s stellar costumes and Howard Shore’s rich but never intrusive score, all impeccably strung together by Scorsese’s longtime collaborator, editor Thelma Schoonmaker. — Michael Rechtshaffen, originally published Dec. 1, 2004.