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Review: 'Aviator' a breathtaking epic

DiCaprio soars in Scorsese's film about Howard Hughes

By Paul Clinton

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Howard Hughes in "The Aviator."
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Leonardo DiCaprio
Martin Scorsese

(CNN) -- "The Aviator" is the perfect melding of talent and material. Who could be better than director Martin Scorsese to bring the story of Howard Hughes' Hollywood years to the big screen? Scorsese is not only a certified genius in the art of filmmaking, he's also one of the world's foremost film historians.

And who could be better than Leonardo DiCaprio, one of the world's most famous men, to star as the much-talked-about Hughes? Together these two vastly talented men -- along with screenwriter John Logan and an utterly superb cast and crew -- have created a masterpiece.

Most people think of Hughes as the eccentric billionaire hidden away in a hotel penthouse with a long white beard, wearing tissue boxes as shoes and sporting grossly elongated fingernails. But rather than focusing on this image, Scorsese, Logan and DiCaprio decided to look at the most prolific period of Hughes' life: from the mid-1920s through the 1940s, when he was a pioneer in two new industries that dominated the 20th century -- aviation and film.

"The Aviator" is framed by two major events in the life of Hughes: his legendary entry into Hollywood filmmaking and his nasty public battles with U.S. Sen. Owen Brewster (played beautifully by Alan Alda) over the usefulness of the planes that Hughes Aircraft built for the U.S. military during World War II.

As a young millionaire, Hughes swept into Hollywood -- and motion picture history -- with the costly production of "Hell's Angels," an epic World War I adventure featuring amazing aerial stunts using specially designed aircraft.

"The Aviator" then segues between Hughes' sexually charged private life and his prolific and public professional life. His affairs with the strong-willed Katharine Hepburn, played exquisitely by Cate Blanchett, and the glamorous Ava Gardner, brought back to life by Kate Beckinsale, are included as well as his magnificent gambles with his life and fortune as he breaks numerous speed and distance records for airplanes (crashing a few along the way) and changes forever the design and manufacture of aircraft.

This epic film also explores his fierce competition with Pan American Airways founder Juan Trippe, superbly played by Alec Baldwin, and his lifelong relationship with his right-hand man Noah Dietrich, expertly performed by character actor John C. Reilly.

This finely tuned script also gives us a look into Hughes' emerging mental illness and how heartbreakingly aware he was of his phobias and the way in which they were forcing him to withdraw from the world, only to fall headlong into madness later.

DiCaprio is truly amazing in the role of a part inventor, part showman. The actor commands the screen like never before in his realistic portrayal of one of the most complex, deeply layered and ultimately tragically flawed men of the last century.

DiCaprio's performance is perfectly calibrated as he takes Hughes from the early years as a womanizing Hollywood mini-mogul to a man on the verge of mental and emotional darkness who appears before a Senate subcommittee fearlessly defending his wartime actions. It is without doubt an Oscar-worthy performance.

The same can be said of Blanchett's portrayal of the late, great Hepburn. She captures the independent spirit of the legendary actress as well as the cadence of her clipped Yankee speech without veering into outright mimicry. Blanchett is one of the best actresses working today, and she is amassing an impressive body of work in a very short time.

Scorsese has my vote for best director, an honor that has eluded this cinematic master for far too many years. Nothing against Kevin Costner, but it was a crime when his direction of "Dances With Wolves" topped Scorsese and "GoodFellas" for the 1990 Oscar.

With "The Aviator's" combination of digital technology, classic lighting techniques and outstanding production design by Dante Ferretti, Scorsese has captured the time period with astounding accuracy.

The flying scenes are breathtaking, and Robert Richardson's cinematography -- both in the air and on the ground -- is a thing of beauty. Ironically, Scorsese is afraid of flying. But he obviously isn't afraid of filming it.

The movie's overall look is also worth noting. Scorsese has given the film the appearance of having been shot in the Technicolor format of Hughes' day. The final result is like being swept back into the '30s and '40s while watching this exquisite motion picture unfold on screen.

Hughes was larger than life, and so are the talents of the people who made this film. "The Aviator" captures an extremely unique, highly eccentric man and his amazing place in American history to visceral perfection.

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