A Review of The Aviator

Tuesday, February 14, 2006
...from our special Los Angeles correspondent, who had first claimed the movie was "a mess":

I tend to use "mess" to describe otherwise impressive movies that subvert their own logic through a number of narrative lapses/problems sufficient to seriously distract this viewer.

Once upon a time a couple of successful movie producers wanted to purchase the right to make a movie based on a great non-fiction book that its author had originally intended to be much longer, but, as he put it: "I finally got up to 450 pages and said that's it." The producer team had an exclusive deal with a studio and they submitted it. The studio heads thought the book a "dazzler," but disagreed on whether or not it could be made into a movie. Nonetheless the rights were secured and some years later the movie adaptation was nominated for 8 Academy Awards (including Best Picture) and won 4 (not including Best Picture.) I thought it a mess. A screenwriter who had quit the project had written a book in which he discussed his role in trying to turn the book into a movie. The studio executive who'd thought the book couldn't be successfully adapted wrote a book 3 years after the screenwriter had, in which he explained his reasons for thinking so. This much-hyped, critically-praised, much-awards-nominated movie ended up being made for a different studio and its less-than-spectacular box office (it didn't recoup production costs) was blamed by some on its running time of 193 minutes. As a result, a year later that studio made a mess of a far superior movie by cutting it from 227 minutes to 139 minutes. It did even worse box office. Luckily, with nothing left to lose, the long-version of the later movie, Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America, got some play and is the version that is available today.

That book adapted into a movie, should you not have guessed, is Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff. The other books are William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting and Steven Bach's Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of HEAVEN'S GATE. For Goldman and Bach the adaptation problem, in large part, was Yeager. Their solution, in large part, was to eliminate Yeager. Since I'm going to turn to The Aviator shortly, I won't devote too much time to explaining their reasoning, but I will relate that, having read neither yet, I thought at the time I saw it that the biggest mistake the director-writer made was to include Yeager (or, conversely, to not just do a movie about Yeager. His best-selling autobiography had not as yet been published.) The movie degenerated into near-slapstick at times in the non-Yeager scenes. I was embarrassed for, among others, Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer. Remember them? They ran around recruiting pilots for the Mercury Program.

Bach better explains why he didn't feel either story--Yeager or Mercury--would make a successful movie, and Goldman explains how he was finally convinced and came to want to make it a message movie, focused on Mercury up through Glenn's flight. The message to America: Be confident. Be optimistic. Together we can always overcome our problems. Goldman's vision convinced Bach. Goldman wrote a script that was well-received and a director was hired. The director, Philip Kaufman, was also a writer. Goldman realized that Kaufman wanted to include Yeager at their first meeting. Before the big meeting to work things out Kaufman submitted a thirty-five page treatment which Goldman, in his book, uses to devastating effect. Kaufman's first line: "This is a Search film, a quest film for a quality that may have seen its best days....." His last line: "And in all of them [a list of movies they should be watching], it seems, we detect the passing of a higher quality." You get the picture. No confidence and optimism that we can overcome. Instead, mourning the loss of a better past. Anyway, the arguments went on, Goldman quit and United Artists put it in turnaround. Kaufman ended up making the movie he envisioned for The Ladd Company. Warner Brothers distributed it. I saw it with a couple of friends on opening night. We'd all read the book. We all liked Yeager and to one degree or another thought the movie bad, but watchable or worse. After reading Goldman, I thought Kaufman an idiot though neither Goldman nor Bach blame Kaufman for what ended up happening and five years later Kaufman redeemed himself with his adaptation of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

So what does any of this have to do with The Aviator? Nothing much, but then it was twenty-plus years later that another movie that featured flyers was nominated for 11 Academy Awards (including Best Picture) and won 5 (not including Best Picture) and was thought by me to be a mess. In this case I know nothing of the backstory and the script is not an adaptation. It is a biopic whose subject is Howard Hughes. There are many things that one can choose to dramatize when doing a biopic about Hughes. There is the obsessive-compulsive disorder, the rich orphan, the aviation, the movies, the women, the Las Vegas landowner and/or the far richer recluse to name major ones. The screenwriter has mainly had his name associated with stories about physical conflict between men so this seems a bit of a stretch for him. Scorsese can't be uninteresting, but hasn't proven to be especially good with narrative and with period movies, Academy Award nominations notwithstanding, since he directed quite possibly the greatest trailer in movie history, Goodfellas, in 1990. Henry Hill and Howard Hughes share the same initials, but there are degrees of difference in how much the vast movie-going public knew regarding them prior to the biopics of which they are the subject and there are degrees of difference in their influence on recent history and because in many respects it is Goodfellas among movies that The Aviator most resembles those differences are no small thing.

The finished project concentrates on the years 1927 to 1947, or thereabouts, with a short introductory scene in which Mom bathes and warns young Howard. We're then treated to the intersection of the aviation and the movies while Hell's Angels is being produced. From then on we're given a mix of aviation, movies, and women with a growing thread of disorder until Hughes gets the Spruce Goose airborne and gets stuck on "the wave of the future" and the memory of a prediction in a reprise with Mom. Why? Either the aviation or the movie mogul/playboy angles might have made better movies if treated more or less exclusively, but together the only real commonality (aside from perhaps putting Katherine Hepburn at the controls once upon a time) is that Hughes was interested in both during the same period of time. He continued to be involved in both long after the timeframe the movie covers. He bought RKO in 1948. He didn't lose control of TWA until 1966.

This could devolve into a litany of narrative and historical complaints, but it's enough to say that they pile up and at some point the technical wizardry isn't enough to keep the movie airborne. For instance, there is newsreel footage of the circumnavigation of the world while The Outlaw is the movie focus. Hughes circumnavigated the globe in January 1937. He took over direction of The Outlaw in December 1940.

The thing that most annoyed me in The Cotton Club, a near mess, is that it indirectly denigrated the greatness of the original Scarface and Scarface is the movie that Howard Hughes directed that forever places him among those who made at least one great movie. In The Aviator it gets a couple of in-passing mentions that would only be meaningful if you knew the movie and its history and then you'd want more. On the movie side what is focused on is the phenomenal flying footage in Hell's Angels and then on Jane Russell's rack in The Outlaw. One expects better from a movie historian of Scorsese's caliber and when one doesn't get it one is left confused and frustrated.

Not knowing the production history, it's hard not to see The Aviator as yet another in a string less-than-successful Scorsese directed movies: The Age of Innocence, Kundun, Gangs of New York and now The Aviator and to ask whether it wouldn't be better if the director concentrated on near-contemporary tales and, perhaps, cast Robert De Niro to appear in them.


terrye said...

I have not seen the movie. After all it is about Howard Hughes.

My father hated Howard Hughes. Way back when my Dad worked for Chicago Pneumatic Tool, CP. His best friend worked for Reed Tool. They both sold bits and reemers and other equipment to oil rigs.

Howard Hughes decided he would own the oil tool business and so he undercut the oil tool divisions of the above said companies. He ran Reed out of business. CP decided to pull out of oil tools and concentrate on air tools.

My Dad had been supervisor over Oklahoma and Arkansas and part of Texas. He was demoted and transferred to Indiana my senior year in high school. That is how I came to be here. A ton of family problems ensued and they ended up going back to Oklahoma sans job within a couple of years.

As far as my Dad was concerned it was Hughes's fault.

It is hard to make a good movie from a good book no matter who is directing. When dealing with historical and controversial people it is even more difficult.

But De Niro always helps.

Knucklehead said...

I am no movie afficianado. I tried to watch The Aviator when it came to cable. I found it insufficiently interesting to make me care about the progress of the story and became otherwise engaged.

MeaninglessHotAir said...

I knew next to nothing about Howard Hughes when I saw the movie. Rich guy, reclusive, obsessive-compulsive disorder, made airplanes. I knew nothing about the movies, the women, the Houston background, the oil drills, the sharkiness of Pan Am, the corruption of the Senate. By the way, on the latter point, there's a great scene detailing Hughes's grilling in front of the Senate. Shades of Alito. They were just as corrupt then as they are today. That scene alone makes the film worth seeing.

I learned much from the film and it kept me entertained throughout. That puts it head and shoulders above most films.

On the other hand I agree, in retrospect, with the comments of our special correspondent. There's a lot of material here thrown together without coherence. Interesting, regardless.