Howard Hughes. Martin Scorsese. Leonardo DiCaprio. All of these elements should have added up to a more satisfying film than The Aviator ends up being. The picture is very good, but in the canon of Scorsese's works it comes up short, being uneven and awkwardly paced. However, a biopic can often get through its own rocky spots if the central performance is good, and DiCaprio's is excellent. And to be fair, The Aviator never gets so rocky that it completely relies upon DiCaprio (although it would appear that he would have been more than up to the task).
Perhaps the best thing that can be said about the movie as far as its place within Scorsese's ouevre is that it is a distinct improvement over the dull Bringing Out the Dead and the extremely messy Gangs of New York.* This film doesn't have that kinetic edge that made his best work so vivid, but watered-down Scorsese is still Scorsese, and so the film is graded to evoke the color processes contemporary to the eras being depicted and there are sequences in the film that are as good as anything he's done - the test flights, the Senate hearings, etc. - but there are also sections of the film that drag, especially towards the middle. There is a specific moment when the film begins to pick up again, and it does so brilliantly by the end of the film (the Senate hearings and the test flight of the HK-1 "Spruce Goose").
DiCaprio's performance is outstanding, managing to keep all the elements of Hughes consistent - the implication in the film is that in many ways it was Hughes' OCD that was responsible for his constant drive to 'get things right,' and thus his ability to overcome his obstacles, even if it required something done that had never been done before. Thus Hughes' legacy is filled with innovation, and DiCaprio sells that "there is no genius without some form of madness." One of the reasons why the Senate hearings are such a rousing conclusion to the movie is because while Pan Am CEO Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) and Senator Brewster (Alan Alda, perfect in his role) are set up as being smart and formidable opponents, they just simply do not have Howard Hughes' determination and that's all she wrote. I don't know what to make of Cate Blanchett's much-lauded performance as Katherine Hepburn; one of the main issues between her and Hughes in the film is that he's not sure when she is acting and not. This would make the character an interesting enigma in a fiction movie, and playing an iconic and well-known figure must have been difficult. I can't get away from a feeling of artifice, but whether this is Blanchett or just the way Hepburn herself was, I can't know. The all-star cast performs admirably, though I must make special mention of Jude Law's Tasmanian devil Errol Flynn.
Dante Ferretti's production design and Sandy Powell's costumes are fantastic, extending a sense of historical accuracy once more to the proceedings as Gangs of New York attempted. Howard Shore's score is used to great advantage in the film; when the movie came out I remember hearing many people talking about how little of the score is in the picture, but I think that Shore's music is so powerful that a little of it goes a long way. That said, the score album is one hell of a listening experience on its own.
* I know that this film is moderately popular, but I have to say that I found it extremely annoying. For one thing, why go through all the trouble of depicting a lost era in New York history if you're going to completely fuck the history up? I'm all for making necessary alterations for dramatic purposes, but the film just seemed to be fishing with the anachronistic Bill the Butcher - and while I normally like Daniel Day Lewis, that performance was like watching William Shatner and Adam West get coked up and then maliciously try to outchew each other's scenery.