The Aviator will likely be remembered as Marty Scorsese's most blatant capitulation to the Oscar bait gods, but it's tricky business estimating whether or not such prostration did him any good. The film won five Academy Awards, but mostly in technical categories. It drew a lot of attention for the uneven work of its actresses - Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, Gwen Stefani - each filing progressively less impressive impersonations of progressively less delible Old Hollywood stars. It seems to have cemented the director's working relationship with Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor who is a lot of things, good and bad, but probably not the New DeNiro (and, following the trail of recent history, that's probably for the best).
In general, it was a precarious gamble for Scorsese, who, more so than any of his brothers in American New Wave arms, seems to be scrambling for the legacy points that the spotty parts of his filmography have lost. Scorsese is the rare director who always has the whole of film history in mind; if The Aviator was his attempt to square his own place in that history, he probably failed. But considered under considerably lower stakes, The Aviator is a really interesting film, imperfect for sure but probably better for it.
Whatever Scorsese is doing with DiCaprio, it's working. At no time through the course of the film is one concious that the kid from Growing Pains is pretending to be Howard Hughes. Still, at no time through the course of the film does Howard Hughes seem to be any older than about 28. DiCaprio's scenes with Blanchett highlight this discordance; her Katherine Hepburn at times seems less his girlfriend and more his drag queen babysitter. Even more jarring, the two actors share an emotional chemistry that feels believable and real. Certain passages of John Logan's script flow out of their mouths like secret code.
But this is a mixed blessing - when Kate and Howard's relationship dies, a bit of the film dies with it, and there's still quite a bit left to go. As Howard goes from woman to woman to foolhardy aviation gambit to foolhardy aviation gambit, Scorsese can't hid the fact that considerable steam has been lost. The momentum skyrockets back with the introduction of Alan Alda as a nefarious congressman - in all pursuits, Howard Hughes apparently needs an adversary - but only in order to crash into anti-climax.
At once a carefully textured character study and a triumphantly epic ode to Classical Hollywood that rivals only Scorsese's own New York, New York in terms of stylization (hence those Oscars), Marty's made a film that proves that he's still got it - as long as we're clear that whatever "it" was, it was always in some way about imperfection and dissonance.