Those looking for a glimpse of the infamous pilot/filmmaker/madman Howard Hughes during his obsessive-compulsive final days with Guinness-record fingernails will have to sate their curiosity elsewhere. The Aviator, Martin Scorsese's exhilarating rocket of a biopic, focuses not on the tycoon's decline, but on his rise, his loves won, lost and discarded, and his indomitable drive. It's Scorsese's best work in years, sidestepping the overkill of The Gangs of New York in favor of a more streamlined approach. The film has the glossy look and dynamic feel of one of Hughes' hyper-aerodynamic aviation prototypes. When Scorsese fires on all cylinders, as in a sequence re-creating the spectacular aerial dogfights in Hughes' first foray into filmmaking, 1930's Hell's Angels, The Aviator captures the seat-of-your-pants thrills of a true pioneer.
Choosing the baby-faced Leonardo DiCaprio to play Hughes may have caused some winces when it was announced, but the actor, like Hughes himself (not to mention Scorsese), is a perfectionist, and his portrayal of this brash force of nature is bang on. He's best in the film's first two hours, during which he gets to toss around his brazenly handsome charm like a sexy sack of gold, romancing Cate Blanchett's Katharine Hepburn.
This sprawling tale isn't Scorsese's best work - it's difficult to trump Raging Bull or GoodFellas - but it's a return to form after the last decade's occasionally self-indulgent stumbles. It's bravura Hollywood filmmaking, and it's likely that Hughes himself would have viewed it with a sense of kinship.