Leonardo DiCaprio's performance took me by surprise. Although I find the characters he plays "likeable" in that Mel Gibson/Will Smith sort of way, DiCaprio has never impressed me as an actor. In The Aviator, though, he gives a nuanced characterization of Howard Hughes, imparting equal measures of charm, idealism, bullheadedness, and fear to the role. Cate Blanchett, whom Kim felt a little too mannered as Katherine Hepburn, also surprised me. Maybe it's because I went in expecting to be annoyed the way I was by Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy, but Blanchett won me over. I'm a huge Hepburn fan too, so that's saying something.
There were plenty of details for the cinephile too. The palette was exquisite, evoking the late 1920s, mid-1930s, and World War II years in succession by the principle off subtraction. By taking away certain hues in each section of the film, Scorcese's crew managed to give a better sense of history than they could have with a consistent look throughout. Some of this had to do with the use of different kinds of film stock, a detail that Kim and I always remark with particular delight.
Although the scenes where Hughes, verging on total breakdown, writhes around naked in his private screening room verged on excess, I actually liked the bits where portions of different films were projected on his body. Naturally, the scene with the saguaros was a favorite, reminding me what a big part Hughes's company, now dissolved into Raytheon, played in the history of Tucson. Indeed, all the deliberately surreal moments in the film worked for me, even though they marked a pretty strong stylistic shift from the "straight" story.
What I liked best about The Aviator, though, was what it had to say about the relationship between genius and foolishness, will and madness. As the parent of a very smart six-year-old who has recently started manifesting various behavioral tics, reminding me of my own latency period more vividly than I'd like, I really identified with the way DiCaprio's Hughes was always struggling to pull it together in spite of his eccentricity. There was something very compelling about watching him try to get a grip on his compulsions, not least because I recognize that pattern in my own life. While it might sound presumptuous to keep thinking, "That's me!," as I watched a film about a super-rich CEO, I have to admit that I did precisely that. His relation to projects -- always having to supervise the details, insisting on doing the most dangerous work himself, wishing he could just do things by himself -- really resonated with me. Like some of my readers, I expend an enormous amount of energy keeping my stranger qualities at bay. Now if only I had that capital to invest. . .