Martin Scorsese’s biographical epic The Aviator (2004) chronicles the life of maverick film tycoon and innovator of aviation Howard Hughes. The film dramatizes Hughes’ life as the eccentric director of Hell’s Angels (1930), Scarface (1932), and The Outlaw (1943), vigorous endeavors in aviation engineering, and tenacious battle with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder.

I saw this film on Netflix, and went into it completely blind (an experience I wish I could have more often). I knew it featured Leonardo DiCaprio and was directed by Martin Scorsese, but having known nothing of the plot, I was genuinely and pleasantly surprised by how sensationally spectacular this film is.

The clear stand-out of the picture is Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance. DiCaprio eloquently dramatizes the evolution of Hughes’ character over the two decades depicted in the film. Similarly to Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, The Aviator portrays Hughes as a larger-than-life eccentric, but also one who is pitiable. At times, the audience can gawk at Hughes’ grandiose endeavors, but at others, sympathize with his demonic infections.

The structure of the second and third acts reminded me of Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, a film that lacks an orthodox protagonist, but rather illustrates a steady decent into chaos. Despite ending on a somewhat positive note, a significant portion of The Aviator‘s runtime chronicles a similar plunge into madness, elevated by DiCaprio’s exquisite performance.

DiCaprio shines particularly bright when portraying Hughes’ struggle with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. His performance delicately depicts the intensity of Hughes’ condition without being excessively cartoonish or insensitive, which can occur with portrayals of mental disabilities in film.

The supporting cast is surprisingly expansive, featuring Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, Alec Baldwin, Gwen Staffani, John C. Reilly, Jude Law, Ian Holm, Danny Huston, Willem Dafoe, Adam Scott, and Alan Alda. While all the supporting performances are not only effective, but skillfully executed, they can be overshadowed by the brilliance of DiCaprio’s.

The cinematography is gorgeously splendid, not surprisingly considering it’s a Scorsese film. The CGI doesn’t age particularly well, but is used sparingly and is so overshadowed by the brilliant camerawork that it can be easily forgiven.

In addition to the performances and cinematography, The Aviator‘s immersion of the audience into 1930’s Hollywood and its other settings is beyond effective. Between the sets, the costume design, and the soundtrack, the film excels as a period piece.

Having read other reviews online, I’ve seen criticisms of the film’s narrative structure, and while I don’t think it’s a significant drawback, the movie does mildly suffer from some uneven pacing. However, the editing is effective, and I don’t think the unorthodox narrative structure bogs the film down enough to be a remarkable flaw.

Despite mild uneven pacing and notably aged CGI, The Aviator excels in immersing its audience in the life of Howard Hughes, dazzlingly directed by Scorsese, and is only elevated further by Leonardo DiCaprio’s show-stealing performance.

Grade: A