The Aviator is everything the Academy supposedly likes: energetic, well-acted, colorful, rife with dazzling production values, and filled with terrific references to moviemaking itself. Nothing like a little pat on the back to make film folks happy. Whereas the tedious two hour and fifty minute running time of Alexander felt like we were fighting the entire Alexandrian campaign, the two hour and fifty minute running time of The Aviator seems like speed dialing. The movie is fast, often funny, and never dull. Scorsese’s biggest challenge was to make industrialist Howard Hughes interesting. It isn’t enough that a person has a fascinating life. The movie itself has to be fascinating. Hughes was a Texas kid who inherited an oil drill-bit business, invented all sorts of gizmos and styles of planes for the airline industry, produced and directed movies, and bedded some of the most interesting women in Hollywood. Seems like pretty amazing fodder for cinematic bliss. Well, the road to riches is strewn with interesting ideas that failed as screen entertainment. Larger-than-life often seems puny when that life gets the biopic treatment. Not this time.

Hughes has popped up in movies before, including Melvin And Howard, in which a goofy sort of ordinary guy supposedly inherited much of Hughes wealth. But he was a part-time character in that film. This time around, Scorsese has provided a broad canvas upon which to depict much of Hughes successful and quirky existence. We don’t get the full extent of his life, none of the crazy older billionaire holed up in a Las Vegas hotel suite watching Ice Station Zebra over and over and padding around naked wearing empty Kleenix boxes for slippers.

To Scorsese’s credit, we definitely get a look at Hughes mental disorder, and I think the look we get is look enough. Hughes had obsessive compulsive disorder before OCD was the disease of the season.

The Aviator takes us from Hughes arrival in Hollywood to make his airplane-filled war epic Hell’s Angels to his rip-roaring battle with a corrupt United States Senator who practiced governmental chicanery to the nth degree and was in the hip pocket of the chairman of Pan American Airways. Hughes’ air company was TWA. Competition can get pretty ugly when U.S. Senators are on-the-take.

Scorsese has gathered together a number of his loyal collaborators and that comfort level adds to the movie’s success. And think about, the guy’s previous film was Gangs Of New York. You really have to admire the ability of a director who’s able to follow one movie (Gangs…) with another like The Aviator. They are both broad and sweeping; the kind of motion picture people call epic. And Scorsese has the talent to deliver a feature that is a font of cinematic richness. He knows how to move a camera, cut to the heart of a scene, and keep the audience alert. More power to him. These days, hard-edged, driven billionaires seem to be all around. Reality television is filled with obnoxious tycoons like Donald Trump or inventive tycoons like Richard Branson. Neither of them can hold a candle to Howard Hughes. He wrote the book on billionaire businessmen with out-sized egos and the desire for more. Call it greed or something else. What compels these men? When is enough enough? Scorsese gets under the skin of Hughes, gives us a sense of what makes the man tick, sorts through the compulsive behavior, and delivers a picture that does what a movie is supposed to do – entertain.

The Aviator stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes. Too young you say? Not at all. Remember that Hughes was young when he went to Hollywood. Orson Welles young. He was a fresh-faced kid with a tinny voice and a smile that belied the determined cunning he would display in his knockabout battles with governments and corporations. DiCaprio gets Hughes down perfectly. His energy is focused. Acting is all in the eyes, and DiCaprio’s eyes brilliantly depict Hughes’ ardent willpower. They suggest force of personality and force of vision.

The movie opens with a brief prologue that touches on a character-defining moment in Hughes’ childhood. Remember it, because something from that scene recurs throughout the film. Again, Scorsese has the knack for choosing the telling moment, the key to a personality. Good art is about showing complexity with simplicity. After this opening, the movie literally dives into action. Airplanes buzz about, propellers spin, dust swirls, the camera sweeps. The screenplay by John Logan (he wrote Gladiator) takes us to the 1920s and the filming of Hell’s Angels, the expensive aerial epic that Hughes was financing with profits from his family’s tool company. The movie, which went through re-shoot after re-shoot and cost $4-million to make, would turn the twenty-something Hughes into a celebrity. He’s able to concentrate on his filmmaking because he’s hired a right-hand man for his business, the smart and affable Noah Dietrich (nicely played by John C. Reilly), who would stay loyal to Hughes for decades. Hughes even staged a premiere for Hell’s Angels on Hollywood Boulevard that would shame today’s publicity hucksters. The opening is a wildly dazzling event, supposedly the mob scene that inspired novelist Nathaniel West to write The Day Of The Locust. And we see it in all its overblown glory. Soon Hughes was dating glamour girls and spending time at famed Tinseltown nightclubs. Scorsese expertly captures the high energy and dazzling excitement of Hollywood in its heyday. In one scene, Jude Law pops in as dashing actor Errol Flynn, a cameo that works superbly.

But through Hughes’ rise to fame, we see the battle between his surface success and his inner demons. The guy won’t eat food that touches other food. He only drinks milk from a sealed glass bottle. He washes his hands again and again. He can’t touch bathroom doorknobs. He’s a bit of a loon, but a very lucky loon. He’s got the support staff and money to hid any number of tics. And when the OCD switch is turned off, he has sex with some very hot and very interesting women. Cate Blanchett is pitch perfect as Katharine Hepburn, actress, raconteur, and a bit of a nutcase herself. Kate Beckinsale does a nifty turn as Ava Gardner and has a beautiful scene late in the movie when she shows Hughes how much she understands the obsessive compulsive acts that cause him to hide out in his home for an extended period, terrified of germs and people and confrontation. There’s even a hint of what’s to come for the elderly Hughes, when we see him locked in his office, middle-aged and fearful, stark naked and starkly worried about that U.S. Senator who wants his scalp. Alan Alda acts the guy with villainous delight. Playing his partner in crime is Alec Baldwin as Pan Am’s honcho. Nobody does quiet malevolence better than Baldwin.

Through it all: the women, the fears, the glory, nothing can compete with Hughes truest love – aviation. The guy would battle the movie ratings board for the right to show Jane Russell’s breasts in their best light (he even designed a push-up bra for her to wear), but airplanes and air power never, ever took a back seat. Would his giant wooden transport plane, an invention of extremes, fly? Well, when push comes to shove, nothing takes a back seat to Hughes desire to prove his point. Not even a Senate hearing.

Overall, The Aviator is a mix of two elements. Firstly, it’s about the rise of aviation as a vital means of transportation and mode of travel. Secondly, it’s about the determination, vision, and emotional malaise of one individual. Blending newsreel footage, digital effects, and a point-of-view that never wavers, Scorsese delivers a series of truly spectacular aerial sequences. Directing his entire cast with a sure-hand, from DiCaprio to the smallest part, he makes everyone believable. Scorsese and Logan keep the storytelling clear-eyed. Dante Ferretti’s lavish production design, Sandy Powell’s wonderful costumes, and Howard Shore’s flawless musical score all contribute mightily to the movie’s success. And special praise has to go to Robert Richardson’s stunning, often beautiful cinematography.

One other key element in filmmaking is the editing. Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s longtime collaborator, edits The Aviator. She is as important to the success of the movie as any one person can be. Scorsese and Schoonmaker are a team. And this team has made a solidly entertaining movie. By Michael Calleri ALT Movie Editor

The unfair knock on director Martin Scorsese is that he isn’t commercial enough. Well, I’ve got news for you; Scorsese can get down into the commercial trough with the best of them. And if those stubborn voters at the motion picture academy don’t give the guy his first directing Oscar for The Aviator, then they might as well close their doors.