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Thursday, January 13, 2005

The Aviator: a brief review 

You know when the exact moment that Martin Scorsese lost me in The Aviator? As Hughes throttles up for his record speed run, the tachometer goes up to eleven (4500, I think), and then the needle falls off.

You see that sort of thing, and the credibili-meter drops near zero. I know that anyone with a flight or mechanical background would immediately snort derisively at this tired gag, and probably most film buffs, too.

So you see that, and then you start looking skeptically at the rest of the film, which gets weird, because the film portrays some deeply weird behaviour and fantastic plot turns. The problem is they were all true.

The experimental Army plane that Hughes crashed through several houses while trying for an emergency landing at the L.A. Country Club? That actually happened, and is accurately depicted in the film. The aviation speed record that ended with him running out of gas and crash-landing? Completely over-the-top, and also entirely true.

The movie drove me to do some quickie biographical research, because I get nitpicky about this sort of thing, and the scary part is that not only does Scorsese not over-reach on most of his plot points, he elided some details (opiate addiction, for example) which probably seemed too outlandish for a movie. Some details are badly degraded by years of pop-culture parody: the scenes of a crazy, long-haired, unshaven Hughes evoke memories of Mr. Burns in one or two Simpsons episodes. That's what you get for being biographically accurate.

Maybe Hughes was too good a subject for a film. Maybe Scorsese agreed. Hughes had a whole (and arguably even stranger and crazier) second act of a life beyond the last reel of The Aviator: he was a huge part of Las Vegas' post-Mafia era, bought another airline, and got involved in a CIA plot to recover a Russian nuclear submarine. Hughes was definitively larger than life. You wish modern billionaires were like this, and a few do aspire: Richard Branson, maybe, with Trump, Mark Cuban, and few others in the second tier. But their lives are only half-lived compared with what Hughes did.

So there you go: the film is 170 minutes of very strange behaviour by a very crazy man, and yet Scorsese actually took out the really crazy parts. I think I like this film more now that I've fact-checked it than I did when I was seeing it. At this point, I expect to read a Hughes bio and find out the tach needle really did fall off.

One more thing: the numerous flying sequences are so good that any aviation buff owes it to themselves to go see this film. And the crazy sequences ring true, too.

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