A film review by Craig J. Koban




2004, PG-13, 166 mins.

Howard Hughes: Leonardo DiCaprio / Katharine Hepburn: Cate Blanchett / Ava Gardner: Kate Beckinsale / Noah Dietrich: John C. Reily / Juan Trippe: Alec Baldwin / Sen. Brewster: Alan Alda / Professor Fitz: Ian Holm / Jack Frye: Danny Huston / Jean Harlow: Gwen Stefani / Errol Flynn: Jude Law / Johnny Meyer: Adam Scott / Glenn Odekirk: Matt Ross / Faith Domergue: Kelli Garner / Mrs. Hepburn: Frances Conroy / Robert Gross: Brent Spiner / Louis B. Mayer: Stanely DeSantis / Joseph Breen: Edward Herrmann

Directed by Martin Scorsese / Written by John Logan

"Once you consent to some concession, you can never cancel it and put things back they way they are."

Howard Hughes

Nothing in life was a compromise for Mr. Howard Hughes.  For a man that wished, as a young lad, to be the world’s greatest golfer, the best pilot, and the best film producer, Hughes would go on to be a much more multi-faceted man than maybe even he aspired to be.  In 1928 when he inherited the his father’s prestigious Hughes Tool Company from his inventor father (he was an heir to drill bits, not oil as he reminded many), Hughes became a millionaire, which afforded him the distinct opportunities that created the legend of Howard Hughes, for better and  for worse.   

Hughes was not only filthy rich, but he was a brave experimental pilot (he broke many modern aviation records of the time), an ingenious inventor, a shrewd and cunning businessman, a Hollywood film producer and director, the owner of several airlines, and the creator of several distinct airplanes.  As a director he made some of Hollywood’s most famous films, like HELL’S ANGELS, the most expensive independent film of its time and produced others like the original classic SCARFACE and THE OUTLAW, the latter infamous for its distinction of how he created the push up bra for actress Jane Russell to wear.  As an aviator, he set world records by flying around the world in only 4 days.  As a businessman he purchased TWA airlines and was a dreamer for seeing airplane travel internationally when it was only in the realm of fantasy for most people.  Howard Hughes was a visionary to be sure. 

Hughes was not without his faults, though.  He was rich, charming, and handsome and was a skilled pilot, director, producer, and a businessman, but he was also a textbook womanizer, dating prestigious women like Ava Gardner, Jean Harlow, and, most notably, Katharine Hepburn.  He was stubborn to the point of ridicule, often spending millions of dollars on failed ventures (he poured millions into the Spruce Goose, the largest plane ever built, that only eventually flew for a hundred or so feet and ended up causing US Senator Owen Brewster to charge him in congressional hearings that he was a war profiteer.  Even more notoriously, Hughes was an obsessive compulsive; actually, make that an insane obsessive compulsive who slowly floated down into madness and despair as his life broke down into seclusion and desperation.  He became addicted to various types of drugs (codeine and other painkillers) and became so deathly afraid of germs or other human contact that he locked himself in at home, often not going out for months.  As time passed and he became even more of an crazy neurotic, he died alone in 1976 and left an estate worth over a billon dollars.  All in all, Hughes was a sad man with moments of genius and glory. 

It’s no wonder that the greatest American director, Martin Scorsese, made a film about one of the greatest American figures of the last century.  His new film, THE AVIATOR, wisely does not tell the entire life story of Hughes, but rather focuses on the peak years of his life.  Yes, we see him as a maverick 24-year-old hotshot entering Hollywood.  We see the troubled production of HELL’S ANGELS.  We see the famous women he was with and his philandering ways.  We see his highs and lows as an experimental pilot and his savvy at being a man that tried to control the skies with his airline empires, never willing to back down from anyone.  But, behind that all, we still see glimpses, some subtle and  some not, of the personal demons that would eventually lead to his downfall.  The film logically deals with them, but does not let it overshadow the main arc of the story.  Hughes was a man of courage and vision, often whose own ideals went so high that no plane in the world could have taken him to such heights, but he nevertheless was a man riddled by his own mental condition that overran and destroyed him. 

Scorsese shows all of this, in what is one of the best American biopics of recent memory.  Along with the terribly underrated GANGS OF NEW YORK, THE AVIATOR represents a filmmaker that takes great pains to find interest in his historical subject matter and create a work that has a real zeal not only for its period details, but also for the lives of its personas.  This is a  film with so much joy, ironically, and you can feel Scorsese’s absolute love of the Hollywood from yesteryear breathe through every pore of the its 166 minutes.  It’s as confident of a motion picture as any you’ll find in 2004 and is in the great tradition of films about equally great, yet flawed men.  Like CITIZEN KANE, THE AVIATOR is about a young man with power, fame, wealth, and vision, and how he achieved greatness though his audacious ambition but ultimately falls because of his own faults. 

THE AVIATOR does an expert job of detailing roughly two decades in Hughes’s life, from the late 20’s to about the late 40’s.  As the film opens we see a young Hughes (played by Leonardo DiCaprio, in one of the year’s best performances) who arrives in Hollywood and truly wants to make a name for himself.  He eventually pitches in what, at the time, was an unheard of amount of money into his dream flick – HELL’S ANGELS.  The film was the most expensive film of all-time at the time (costing nearly $4 million, an amazing sum).  The roots of his battle with obsession can be somewhat seen here, as he is shown willing to wait weeks, if not months, for the “perfect clouds” for the background for his dogfight sequences.  He even goes to the trouble of hiring a meteorologist to tell him when and where the precise conditions will arise. 

The film, because of the excess, took nearly three years to make and the industry, as a result, laughed at and ridiculed the young Hughes.  He would have the last laugh, though, as the film became a gigantic hit and allowed him to produce more films, including the then controversial THE OUTLAW, which prominently feature the cleavage from Jane Russell, which is detailed in the film’s most humorous scene where Hughes appeals to the censor board and logically explains that the degree and measure of Russell’s cleavage does not exceed those of other actresses of the day.  Yes, he would be willing to do anything to get his way.

Hughes subsequently has his attention shifted from films to what seems to be his first love – the sky.  He begins to design and build his own airplanes and even becomes the primary stockholder in TWA, who eventually gets into a business quarrel of sorts with Pan-Am head-honcho Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin).  Between running his airlines he manages to become a world-renowned pilot.  He broke records, but also sees his share of mishaps, including the dreadful test flight of the XF-11 spy plane that nearly killed him when it crashed in a much-publicized event in Beverley Hills. 

A considerable amount of attention is also focused on the many loves of Hughes’ life, and his romances were many.  The one with the most coverage is his fling with Katharine Hepburn, played brilliantly by Cate Blanchett.  Her portrayal is probably the most thankless in the film, as it quickly and economically achieves the delicate balancing act of a sort of over-the-top, mannered impersonation with a sort of sensitive, stern, inquisitive, and intrinsically interesting woman that is both tomboyish, sexy, tough and verbally to-the-point all at the same time.  She eventually leaves Hughes for Spencer Tracy.  Then there was Ava Gardner (played well by the luminous Kate Beckinsale) whose sultriness is overpowered by her own sense of power.  She is a gorgeous actress who could have anyone, but she was no pushover and refused the expensive gifts that Howard showered her with.  Yes, women were there for the taking for the rich man, but they were not always that easily taken. 

All of this, of course, gave into the darkness that haunted Hughes’ life and consumed him.  He became less the flashy and charming Hollywood leading man mogul and more of an eccentric and recluse.  Scorsese is masterful in the way he slowly shows his mental state debilitating.  The signs of his condition are slight at first.  He would stutter somewhat and then mildly repeat the same words over and over again.  This gave way to obsessively repeating sentences that baffled his followers.  Moreover, he began to grow so ill that he often was plagued just trying to leave a public men’s room, often waiting for someone to open the door for him (he became so deathly afraid of germs that he would soon refuse to touch anything without gloves or a Kleenex).  His Obsessive Compulsive Disorder becomes so frantic and cruel that he secludes himself for months in his own screening room, completely naked, never apparently bathing nor grooming himself, stores his own urine in bottles and watches movies over and over again in what he dubbed his “germ free” zone.  How tragic and ironic for a man that was the richest in the world that he was scared of leaving home, not to mention deathly afraid of even making contact with the most commonplace of daily items. 

THE AVIATOR is such a complete and comprehensive epic, even if it does not focus totally on Hughes’ entire life.  The remarkable aspect of the film is just how much emotional investment there is in the piece, and Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan (GLADIATOR and STAR TREK: NEMESIS) create a film of great narrative economy.  You get such broad strokes from a relatively narrow look (historically) of Hughes the man that, by the end, you totally feel like you get a great understanding of not only his genius, but of his madness as well.  The film is nearly three hours long, but is meticulously paced and is never dull.  Scorsese, like in his other biopics GOODFELLAS and RAGING BULL, has a keen sense of balance to the treatment of his subject matter by focusing equally on the highs and lows of Hughes’ life.  Much like Henry Hill and Jake LaMotta, Hughes is a man driven by the hunger of his visions and the power of his convictions, so much that he achieves greatness and ultimately failure.  It’s a really absorbing and fascinating story, and Scorsese reflects his own respect, sympathy, and resentment for the man, all in equal dosages. 

One of the most surprising aspects of the film is Scorsese’s command over using visual effects to tell his story.  There was some hint of this in his last film, GANG’S OF NEW YORK, where he used computer effects to help create the city of the mid 19th Century.  In THE AVIATOR Scorsese’s abilities to marry big scale visual effects (and I mean George Lucas and Peter Jackson scale) with practical ones is a revelation.  Sometimes the best effects are the ones that are the least visible and help to accentuate the situation and not draw attention to itself.  THE AVIATOR has several of these moments, such as Hughes’ disastrous crash of the spy plane, which brilliantly uses live action, large scale practical effects, with some of the most seamless CGI effects I have seen all year.  There is also the famous flight of the Spruce Goose, which always looks convincing and elicits a sort of quiet awe.  The sequence where Hughes is shown directing the aerial dogfights in the sky may be the best visual effect sequence all year.  Then there is the miraculous attention to period detail, where Scorsese uses every trick in the book to sell us the look of Hollywood from the 30’s and 40’s.  The film is a virtuoso amalgamation of fantastic sets, bold art direction, and special effects.  THE AVIATOR represents Scorsese’s biggest, most expansive and most opulent work to date.  It’s just a glory to look at. 

The film, no matter how good looking it is, still rests on the success of its lead performance, and DiCaprio plays Hughes in what I feel may be a career defining role for him.  He may not be what everyone’s feels is the closest look-alike to Hughes, but he so thoroughly and effortless captures his essence and spirit.  DiCaprio is smart enough not to give into the temptation of over-play the part into some sort of ridiculous caricature.  Instead, he sort of embodies all of the features the defines Hughes altogether – that care-free and exuberant spirit with limitless ambition, the fierce and cunning businessman, the soft and sensitive ladies man, the reckless and impetuous filmmaker that flirts with conventions and standards, and finally the obsessed individual who becomes the epitome of self-containment, where his own psychosis paralyses him so much that he is incapable of contact with the outside world.  DiCaprio's work here is inspired and his most layered and complex to date, and his recent Golden Globe nomination was much deserved (as will, hopefully, a future Oscar nomination). 

THE AVIATOR is pure Scorsese at his finest and one of the best films of 2004.  It succeeds in painting a portrait of a man that tiptoes between madness and genius by humanizing its lead figure.  Very few biopics have this film’s sense of scale, scope, interest, and far-reaching and objective focus.  Scorsese lovingly paints a glamorous Hollywood epic and one that’s endlessly entertaining and revealing at the same time.  I think it clearly represents Scorsese at his most commercial, but that’s not to say that it does not revel in being a highly personal film for the director.  His passion still comes through, and he uses all of his skill and style as a conduit to tell such a methodical and painstaking story; its kind of like one of those really long movies you never wish will end.  By the end of its three hours, you really want to get up and ask for more.  THE AVIATOR is big, bold, evocative, stylish, and brilliantly filmed and acted.  It’s a sprawling film treasure that works as a luxurious entertainment and the most compelling biopics of the last few years.  This is Scorsese at his most stirring, confident and bold, and if there was any justice in the film world, then the Academy would should finally give in and award him with Best Director next February. 

  H O M E