It's easy to understand why notoriously determined director Martin Scorsese (Gangs of New York) was hot to make a movie showing Howard Hughes's early career: Long before Hughes became an addled recluse holed up in luxury hotel suites, he was a motion picture industry and aviation pioneer who'd pay anything and fight anyone to achieve his goals. The Aviator, set between 1927 and 1947, follows Hughes (DiCaprio, showing real acting chops) as he merrily spends his inherited millions to conquer Hollywood and the skies. There are hints (in scenes that become repetitive) of the madness to come—an obsession with cleanliness, several violent rages—but this Hughes is a dashing fellow, one whose moxie and moolah attract screen divas such as Katharine Hepburn (Blanchett, astringently amusing) and Ava Gardner (Beckinsale, woefully miscast) to his bedside.
Aviator never burrows as deeply inside Hughes's head as Scorsese's Raging Bull did into Jake La Motta's, but it's still a tale worth telling and Scorsese does it with style, authority and dash, though at excessive length at nearly three hours. (PG-13)