Cate Blanchett is miraculous in The Aviator
. Her performance, as Hollywood mega-star and Howard Hughes' lover Katharine Hepburn, is absolutely stunning -- she is multi-dimensional, riveting, and totally invigorates the movie every time she's on screen. Blanchett, who has been good before, has never been better, and you never want to see her walk out of the room. In the hands of a lesser actress and under the eye of a worse director, the performance would have been geared towards mimicry, like those of many historical celebrities; but Blanchett doesn't just impersonate Hepburn. She creates a fresh, new character full of spirit and complexity, and it's among the best performances by any actor this year.
Okay, that's out of the way. Now for the flick. Scorsese directs the hell out of this thing for the first hour and a half. He doesn't do it in an ostentatious way; he's less Guy Ritchie and more Michael Powell with it -- but he does get the most out of every great sequence and always seems to find that memorable image to capture the moment. The plane crash in Beverly Hills, the first flight with Kate, the supplicating OCD hands in the screening room... Scorsese knows how to tell a story visually (no surprise), and there's no finer feeling than the security of being in the grasp of a filmmaker this good.
Luckily, John Logan also knows how to tell a story. He's turning into arguably the best mainstream Hollywood screenwriter on the A-list, and the structure of The Aviator
is crisp and driven. It doesn't fuck around with needless biographical trivia, but it does take time out to deepen characterization and meditate on the themes. Beyond the dragginess of the film's second half, its main flaw for me is that aviation doesn't carry much literal value, and the metaphorical value added by Scorsese and Logan didn't bring a whole lot more to it. I was just never emotionally drawn to the subject matter, even as I was in awe of how well made this movie is.
DiCaprio is just as fantastic as Blanchett, working hard to flesh out Hughes and getting through the rough scenes without a single moment of falseness (I could have done without all the rolling-on-the-floor naked and crazy). Bob Richardson's photography is also pretty outstanding -- does this guy ever not shoot incredible pictures? Matt Ross and Adam Scott do some fine supporting work (even Jude Law has a grand old time in his one brief scene as Errol Flynn), and the score bustles and kicks. As entertaining and impressive as it is, though, it's hard to shake the film's worst performance -- a shrill, one-note turn from Alan Alda as a finger-wagging antagonistic U.S. Senator who spends most of his screen time scolding and whining. Alda should stick to David O. Russell comedies. And the odor he stinks up the screen with just proves how marvelous Cate Blanchett is, breezing through the movie as her own star. Hepburn at her best was merely an equal.