Directed by Martin Scorsese
Studio: Warner Bros.
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1 1080p VC-1 codec
Running Time: 170 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, French, 2.0 Spanish
Subtitles: SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese
Release Date: November 6, 2007
Review Date: November 7, 2007
Howard Hughes was such a creature of contradictions: a brilliant man with little formal education, a billionaire who wore clothes from Sears, a man who had the world at his feet (including both sexes eager for his favors) but whose own personal demons drove him into a drug-induced isolation. Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator does a first-rate job capturing many of the sides of this enigmatic individual, at least the many parts of him that were known by the public before he took his leave of them in the early 1950s.
Leonardo DiCaprio wouldn’t have been my first thought as the young pioneering aviator, moviemaker, and playboy, but he does a sterling job of capturing Hughes’ ego-driven pursuit of glory spending his millions on the things that captured his fancy, namely airplanes, movies, and women. With his perpetual baby face, DiCaprio’s later scenes as the aging Hughes, while accurate in vocal timbre, seem nothing like the pictures of the careworn face of the troubled billionaire we’re so familiar with. The earlier scenes, however, find DiCaprio accurately personifying Hughes’ essence: the madcap, idiosyncratic young man throwing money at problems to get what he wanted and his ever-growing awareness of germs that fed his phobias and later obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Martin Scorsese’s handling of the sprawling scenario (script by John Logan) is customarily brilliant. The film’s major set pieces: two airplane crashes (one Hughes walks away from, the other horrific in its toll on Hughes), the rhapsodic Hell’s Angels dogfights, the gripping standoff between Hughes and Senator Ralph Brewster (Alan Alda) during senate hearings on misappropriation of funds, and the climactic flight of the Hercules are all handled with a style, grace, and surety that only a master craftsman could have engineered. Logan’s script seems to be very accurate in handling the details of Hughes’ adventures in aviation, but the chronology is all wrong for the 1930s scenes with Katharine Hepburn. They actually met on the set of Sylvia Scarlet in 1936 (Hughes was visiting his good friend Cary Grant who is seen but not heard in the film. You wouldn‘t even know they were friends.). At the first dinner date Hepburn mentions being box-office poison (which didn’t happen until 1938). The next scene shows Hughes back at Hughes Aircraft with a 1935 title card. An average viewer wouldn’t know or care about these anachronisms, but for a fan of 1930s movies, it’s bothersome.
Though DiCaprio is front and center through almost the entire film, several other actors make auspicious appearances. John C. Reilly does yeoman work as Hughes’ second in command Noah Dietrich. Alec Baldwin is all smarmy pomposity as Pam Am chief Juan Trippe while cohort Ralph Brewster is played by Alan Alda with all the false bravado and snaky sincerity that he can summon. As for the three primary women in his orbit during the film, both Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow and Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner are astoundingly beautiful women that don’t suggest for one moment either of the actresses in question. Cate Blanchett, who won an Oscar playing Katharine Hepburn, does indeed have her speech cadence and physical carriage down pat, but of the three women, she looks by far the least like the woman she is playing.
This enormous production won four technical Oscars at the 2004 ceremony: art direction, cinematography, film editing, and costume design. All of them were richly deserved honors for a film that’s one of the best recent attempts to give us a warts-and-all biographical look at one of the 20th century’s most eccentric yet compelling personalities.
The film’s Panavision 2.40:1 aspect ratio is captured in a 1080p transfer using the VC-1 codec. The film has two main visual looks: the first fifty minutes being filmed as if in two strip Technicolor (an almost Kodachrome patina to the images lacking the blue palette) while the remainder of the film is in rich, vibrant full hues reminiscent of three strip Technicolor of the period). The Blu-ray disc has no trouble reproducing these looks to perfection with excellent sharpness, deep colors that don’t bleed, and just right contrast. Black levels are very good with fine shadow detail. Fine image detail isn’t quite as perfect as in other Blu-ray discs, but the image is still quite excellent overall. The SD-DVD of this movie also features a strong, deeply saturated image, but the image quality is much more refined, solid, and consistent on the Blu-ray disc. The film has been divided into 32 chapters.
The film uses the same Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track as the SD-DVD (albeit with a higher bit rate: 48 kHz, 640 kbps). While some of the action-oriented set pieces do feature good use of all available channels, not all of the channels get maximum use in the film as a whole. It’s no accident that one of the technical Oscars the film didn’t win involved the sound. The audio track is good but not outstanding, and one wonders if an uncompressed track would have given the film an additional audio luster.
All of the bonus features from the SD-DVD two-disc set have been ported over to this Blu-ray release. Sadly, except for the trailer which is in 1080i, all of the bonus features are in 480i.
Director Martin Scorsese provides an audio commentary that’s in his typically chatty and informative style. His remarks have been intercut with brief commentary from film editor Thelma Schoonmaker and producer Michael Mann. There are gaps, however, when no one is talking.
“Making The Aviator” is an 11½-minute love connections between each of the interviewees for one another. Very little of substance is related in this disappointing little puff piece.
“The Role of Howard Hughes in Aviation History” gives information on the great debt modern aviation owes to this pioneer of the air. It’s a nice 14½-minute overview for the real documentary to come.
“Modern Marvels: Howard Hughes” is an outstanding 43 ½-minute documentary first broadcast on the History Channel which goes into detail the ways in which Hughes influenced modern aviation and even affected satellite and missile-based warheads of today.
“The Affliction of Howard Hughes: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder” gives a brief summary of Hughes’ obvious (undiagnosed in his lifetime) problem and offers interviews with others who have similar manifestations of the disorder. It runs 14 minutes.
“Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Panel” is a 15-minute discussion with, among others, Martin Scorsese, Leonardo Dicaprio, and actress Terry Moore about the manifestations of Hughes’ OCD as portrayed in the film.
“The Visual Effects of The Aviator” is a 12-minute discussion of the use of CGI, green screen, models, and miniatures that were used to create the various visual treats (premieres, tickertape parade, crashes, aerial photography) in the film.
“Constructing The Aviator” is a 6-minute talk with the film’s Oscar-winning production designer on his work for the film.
“Costuming The Aviator” gives a too brief 3½ minutes with the Oscar-winning costume designer on her work, mainly in her designs for the three major female stars of the film.
“The Aviator and the Age of Glamour” again goes into the hair and makeup for the film’s three major female stars. This featurette runs 8 minutes.
“Scoring The Aviator” is a 7-minute interview with composer Howard Shore in which he describes his process of working on writing the music for the film and his weaving of classical music into his own original compositions.
“The Wainwright Family” features musician Loudon Wainwright III proudly discussing his work and the work of his two children in presenting three different decades of singers used in background musical portions of the film. It runs 5 minutes.
“An Evening with Leonardo DiCaprio and Alan Alda” is a 28-minute question and answer session with the two actors the day after they had received Oscar nominations for their work in the movie.
A 1½-minute deleted scene is actually partly in the film, the moment when Hughes attempts to give Ava Gardner a sapphire necklace. Nice little bit that probably should have been retained in the film.
A very complete stills gallery featuring many photographs of director Scorsese working with his actors as well as some film stills and some on-set portraits is offered.
A 1½-minute theatrical trailer (in high definition) and a 17 second spot for the soundtrack for the film are also on the disc.
The Aviator is one of the most enjoyable in a series of biographical films made in the 21st century about notable personages from the 20th century. The Blu-ray presentation is excellent, and the film comes with a strong recommendation.