I have a particular dislike of biopics because the vast majority of them use the same damn formula: get an actor to do an extended impression of the subject of the biopic, show the subject going through their well-known ups and downs, cue dramatic music, extra points for accurate costumes and cars. In this style of biopic, there is absolutely no effort made to shape the film to its subject. Instead, the same film is made over and over, and the only thing that changes is the subject matter. Examples of this style are numerous (most biopics, in fact), but off the top of my head I can think of Man on the Moon, Hurricane, Hoffa, Ray, etc., etc.
Conversely, there exists another style of biopic in which the director actually thinks about the subject of the film and makes the film according to that. The film becomes (heaven forbid!) an interpretation of a famous persona, instead of a “this happened, then this happened, and wasn’t Jamie Foxx amazing?” kind of film. Examples of this style are far fewer. Off the top of my head, I can only think of four (but I know there are more): Ed Wood, Abel Gance’s Napoleon, John Ford’s The Young Lincoln, and now The Aviator.
In The Aviator, Scorsese offers us a look at one of the most famous industrialists of the 20th century, the details of whose life are very well known. So instead of presenting a survey of Howard Hughes’ life and accomplishments, he gives us an intricate and complex interpretation of Hughes, his obsessions, and his place within a wider cultural context. And as he does all of that, he also turns every biopic convention on its head and effectively creates a cinematic apparatus which also happens to be a movie.
Film Comment magazine had an article about The Aviator when it first came out, which made some good points. Rather than trying to think of my own ideas, I’ll just throw some of the ideas I picked up in that article. The author (whose name escapes me) pointed out that the action scenes in the film have the opposite effect of action scenes in every other film. The convention of action scenes is to break up the monotony of a narrative, to give the audience thrills and chills, a kind of a carrot on a stick to get them to sit through the quieter moments of a film. However, in The Aviator, the action scenes are moments of respite, of peace, a calm oasis where everything makes sense. In doing this, Scorsese directs the audience to see the world through Hughes’ eyes. Scorsese invites us into his film, to interact with it rather than merely be subjected to a series of spectacles. For Hughes, flying was peace and it was his day-to-day life that was a battle.
Scorsese effectively aligns the perspective of the audience with that of Hughes throughout the film, a move which signals a more difficult and participatory spectatorship. Hughes’ neuroses become ours. As Film Comment pointed out, we are treated to a film that simultaneously shows us the world through Hughes’ eyes, and how the world viewed Hughes. No small feat, to be sure. Especially for a Hollywood biopic.
Earlier, I mentioned that Scorsese had created a cinematic apparatus. What I meant by that was how Scorsese created a film which is a machine. Hughes was in love with machines, be they planes or film cameras with which he created his movies. And The Aviator acts as a cinematic machine; it’s an almost modernist symphony of gears, rivets, engines, propellers, and projectors. Throughout the film, we see the mechanics of not only aerodynamics, but also of cinema itself. The film becomes what Hughes devoted himself to. The film acts as a machine whose function is to define, interpret, process, and examine Howard Hughes. At no point does Scorsese try to hide his hand in the matter, this is not escapism. This is an active viewing experience which is very much defined as a most cinematic film. Not because of its countless references to old Hollywood, or to its seemingly nostalgic feel, but because it is pure cinema, it is a cinematic apparatus, and it’s Scorsese’s best film in years.