The Aviator (2004)

Martin Scorsese | 2hr 49min

These days, the name Howard Hughes may not be as instantly recognisable as those famous actresses we see hanging on his arm throughout The Aviator, or the famous actors who surround him at parties. From Jude Law’s casting as Errol Flynn to Gwen Stefani’s cameo as Jean Harlow, Martin Scorsese’s ensemble is loaded with big names of the 2000s playing big names of Golden Age Hollywood, though none stand out so much as the two headlining this epic period piece.

Even in a supporting role, Cate Blanchett’s take on Katharine Hepburn shines bright, adopting the clipped consonants and elongated vowels of the star’s distinctive Transatlantic accent, and Leonardo DiCaprio makes an even bigger impact as the titular pilot, engineer, and director, Howard Hughes himself. This is a man with dreams as grand as his passions, often combining his two great loves of aviation and filmmaking to create spectacular displays of human ingenuity for the masses to enjoy, and as such there is something about his characterisation which captures the glory of the ambitious, creative culture he lived in.

A grand scale of filmmaking to match this larger-than-life figure – easily one of Scorsese’ most epic films.

Scorsese’s penchant for splendidly curated, period-appropriate soundtrack is particularly strong in evoking this era, using the Dixieland melodies of the Original Memphis Five and the swinging rhythms of Benny Goodman to surround Hughes’ ventures with an air of bold bravado. It is through Robert Richardson’s cinematography and Rob Legato’s visual effects though that Scorsese pulls together an even greater cinematic reflection of Hughes’ cultural figure, digitally colour grading his mise-en-scène to emulate the filmmaking technology of the time. As the young director rises the ranks of Hollywood during the 1930s, Scorsese recreates Multicolor, a two-color Technicolor process which Hughes himself owned, turning white to aqua, green to blue, and blue to a beautifully cool cyan. The visual impact is tangible in almost every scene for the first fifty minutes, though it is especially when he meets Hepburn for a game of golf that the grass catches our eye with its crisp, electric shade of turquoise.

Scorsese’s emulation of two-color Technicolor turns greens into blues, standing out in the bright colour grading of golf courses and the subtle tinting of peas.

As The Aviator’s epic narrative moves on into the 1940s, Scorsese’s colours settle into a naturalistic simulation of a more technologically advanced Technicolor procedure – the three-strip process, which captures a fuller range of the colour spectrum. This type of colour grading is also more recognisable from such monumental classics as Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, forming a perfect bridge between Hughes and the technical innovation that surrounds him. Even more important than Scorsese’s practical understanding of film history though is the vibrant visual style that comes of it, shading his images with bright pigments that draw out early Hollywood’s lush, opulent glamour.

A transition to the three-strip Technicolor process bringing out a fuller range of the colour spectrum, beginning to emphasise the greens that were previously blue.

Credit must of course also go to Scorsese’s regular production designer though, as Dante Ferretti curates a handsome array of formal function rooms, bustling air strips, and studio backlots, often captured through crane shots and moving cameras endeavouring to keep up with the madness. For Hughes, this chaos is often overwhelming, and as his OCD worsens over time, so too does Scorsese’s style grow more agitated. On a red carpet, Thelma Schoonmaker’s rapid montage editing of flash bulbs and shouting journalists become an assault on the senses, and Hughes’ preoccupation with trivial matters similarly draws the camera’s focus towards his fixations.

Scorsese uses flash bulbs to great effect in Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, Casino – and of course here in The Aviator, sharply punctuating Schoonmaker’s montage editing to disorientating effect.

As we move deeper into the film, Scorsese’s sets also begin conforming to more rigid architectural arrangements, embodying the extreme fastidiousness that comes with Hughes’ obsessive behaviours. In the public bathroom of one famous Hollywood nightclub, the exotic, green wallpaper and tiles suggest a clean rigour in their design, though being the germaphobe that he is, Hughes is still discomforted by the notion of passing a towel or touching a doorknob. So too do his luxurious mansion interiors surround him with beautifully patterned wallpaper and finely-carved, antique furniture, though even these eventually submit to his curious compulsions, with red and white streamers marking “germ-free” zones.

Kubrickian perfectionism in these set designs to match Hughes’ OCD, not unlike the bathroom in The Shining.
A degradation of previously ordered environments into complete disarray, with streamers marking the germ-free zones in Hughes’ house.

More than anywhere else, it is in cockpits and hangars that he often finds he is most at home, running his hands along the fuselage of his jets where we catch his reflection in warped close-ups on their shiny, metallic surfaces. When we step back, Scorsese relishes those bombastic aerial sequences that Hughes adores so much, sending a fleet of planes up into the sky like a flock of birds and even planting the camera in the cockpit with the man himself. Hughes’ directorial debut, Hell’s Angels, is very much founded on similar cinematic innovations, displaying an overwhelming excitement around the industry’s technological development, and even pushing him so far as to reshoot the entire film with sound after being inspired by The Jazz Singer.

Often running his hands along the shiny exteriors of his planes, and his face distorted in close-up reflections, binding the two together.
Truly impressive aerial sequences like those Hughes himself directed, and perhaps even a bit of Top Gun. Technically accomplished on every level, from the editing to the camera placement.

In essence, this rendering of Hughes is entirely Wellesian, as Scorsese matches the character’s grand ambition with equally spectacular visuals accompanying him through his rise and fall. Much like Citizen Kane, the glimpses we get of our protagonist’s childhood plants the seeds of the fatal flaw that will topple him later on, dooming him not to an early grave, but rather a sad, lonely life. Where Charles Foster Kane lacked any real passion though, Hughes is overwhelmed by it, almost literally flying too close to the sun before crashing back down to earth. He is the tragic centrepiece of Scorsese’s treatise on an industry that is both extravagantly pioneering and detrimentally controlling, and in its adventurous, colourful experimentations, The Aviator fully recognises both sides of this glamorous culture and the bright-minded pioneer it consumed.

A Wellesian rise and fall in this majestic character study ending in real tragedy.

The Aviator is currently streaming on Binge, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.


2 thoughts on “The Aviator (2004)”

  1. Amazing work here compliling all these. I did give this a rewatch a week ago and think that it’s a masterpiece myself, I swear that outside of the big moments there were countless small rich cinematic moments that all add to this too. I think this one of Scorsese’s most active.

    Some of the images not here that stuck with me most are:

    – DiCaprio sitting in the car with his face reflected
    – The big interior shot of the actors inside the Hercules
    – All the times a projector is placed behind an actor – absolutely gorgeous

    I also personally liked the two uses of split screens. Not seeing you have missed anything but I do feel there is a lot of imagery that’s easy to miss as Scorsese resorts to very low shot length sometimes but you can just catch something stunning if you’re watching closely.

    Top 3 DiCaprio performance along with Hollywood and Revenant, and hopefully Tar will dethrone it but for now my favourite Blanchette performance too. The crane shot scene in the club they get together is great but I also love the less cinematic dinner with the Hepburns were DiCaprio gets to bring the fire a bit.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment Harry, you make some great points. I took about 60 screenshots of this film and only ended up using about 14 of them on this page, so it’s definitely far from comprehensive. But those projector shots and split screens definitely leapt out at me too. This was only my first viewing so there’s always the chance I will come around to it being a masterpiece on a rewatch as well.


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