Maybe not great, but better than his last, and better than the critics' darling Sideways I'd say. Not that I didn't like Payne's latest, but The Aviator seems to have so much more to offer.
I love it that for all the epic size and sweep of it, it's a very personal film. It's typical--no, it's representative--of Scorsese, I think, that he'd take an epic and turn its priorities on their collective heads, make not budget and special effects but obsession and character and human nature rule the film, show all that impressive externals (CGI effects galore; an enormous plane crash; extravagant sets and luxurious costumes) and tell us that it's what's inside Hughes that interests him the most. I've said it before, I'll say it again, he's like Mel Gibson turned inside out. And with talent.
The story, especially the last part, reminds me of Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, where the forces of evil (political and industrial corruption, monopoly, big money interests) gather around our hero, but his greatest obstacle and opponent is basically himself. Then Cooper (sorry, De Caprio) stands up, shakes off the funk, and shows them all for the pixielated ninnies they really are.
With this and Catch Me If You Can, De Caprio makes up for his recent dull turns; he's charismatic, untamed, intense, everything he promised to be early in his career and only is nowadays on interviews or in the tabloids.
A few reservations--Cate Blanchett is wonderful, but for the record, Hepburn was much more beautiful (not a fair assessment, merely an observation). And the film suffers from trying to re-enact Hell's Angels, not that I can see how Scorsese could have done otherwise--I don't think anyone can do what Hughes, a non-filmmaker, could have done with that one picture, with what may be the greatest aerial battle ever filmed.
Niggling reservations, of course. Best film of 2004 to date, I'd say--which isn't a stellar year from where I'm sitting, but is less unstellar than it could have been without this.