Review: The Aviator

The Thinker by Rodin

Whoa! I had an inkling that the late Howard Hughes was something of a strange man, but I never quite knew how strange until I belated rented The Aviator, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the aviation pioneer. To call Hughes merely an aviation pioneer though is to damn him with faint praise. He was a man of many enormous talents, as well as great eccentricities. I can understand why in 2004 the great legendary director Martin Scorsese felt compelled to bring his story to the screen. The film was nominated for both Best Picture and Best Director but it won neither. However, it did win a host of lesser awards, including an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of the legendary actress Katherine Hepburn.

Casting DiCaprio as Hughes was an unconventional choice. He was only age 30 when the film was released, which arguably made him too young for the role. I have seen too many pictures of Howard Hughes to succumb to disbelief from DiCaprio’s performance. He has Hughes’ lankiness but not much else. Regardless, he is compelling in the role. So even if he may be a bit off imitating Hughes, he is compelling being someone imitating an eccentric aviator who looks sort of like Howard Hughes.

With Scorsese directing, you do not anticipate mediocrity and you will find none in this movie. While the movie makes for a fascinating insight into an odd and amazing man, the movie itself does not have a feeling of greatness about it. Scorsese attempts to portray Hughes as something of a Citizen Kane. Hughes was not interested in power so much as proving to the world that he was a multihued genius. Yet the feeling of Citizen Kane pervades this movie. The parallels even include a pivotal early childhood scene.

Hughes was an early inheritor of a family fortune, and he was not afraid to spend it in relentless pursuit of his passions. The early part of the movie documents his obsession to create the most spectacular film of its time, Hell’s Angels (1930). The project takes years and squanders millions of his money, which makes it by magnitudes the most expensive picture ever attempted. After completion but right before its release, Hughes noticed that talkies were the wave of the future, so he reshot it as a talkie. Nonetheless, the picture turned out to be spectacularly successful. Hughes believed in his own vision and was relentless in its pursuit. Neither directing movies nor bedding famous Hollywood starlets was his true passion. That lay in aviation. Hughes dreamed big aviation dreams, drove his employees crazy with his demands. Yet more often than not, his inchoate vision took wings and soared.

Hughes also suffered from a number of phobias. An epidemic that touched him as a child made him paranoid about germs. He touched people only reluctantly and washed his hands even more often than a family doctor. Eventually, as the film sadly details, his phobias nearly consumed his life. He could hole himself up in his room watching movies for months at a time. Yet when push came to shove and he had to go to Washington to testify in favor of his airline, TWA, he could overcome his phobias.

Scorsese does succeed in providing a fascinating portrayal of a truly interesting man. While Hughes’ fascination for Rosalind Russell is never discussed, his love affairs with Katherine Hepburn and Ava Gardner are well documented. Howard enjoyed being a ladies man, but most of the ladies he pursued were merely arm candy. Indeed a number of them he considered part of his personal staff. The women he truly loved appeared to be rather few.

While Cate Blanchett won an Oscar for her portrayal of Katherine Hepburn, I found her performance a bit off, perhaps because I have seen Hepburn in too many movies. Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner is far more plausible. This is one of those movies where the supporting actors are either hard to place or were too familiar. I love Cate Blanchett, but I was fully thirty minutes into the movie before I figured out who she was. In that sense, she acted quite well. Alan Alda though is instantly familiar, so it was hard to see him in the role of Senator Ralf Owen Brewster. Brent Spiner (Data, on Star Trek: The Next Generation) played Robert Gross, but I never noticed. I was quicker on the draw with Ian Holm, who played Professor Fitz, an eccentric professor from UCLA that Hughes adds to his menagerie of odd but talented people.

The movie is long (170 minutes) but it moves briskly because there is much to tell. Scorsese leaves us with the indelible impression that Hughes’ eccentricities and talents complemented each other. If he were not an eccentric, he would not have been as successful as he was. He had his share of notable failures (including creating the world’s largest floating flying wooden airplane, the Spruce Goose, which near the end of the film we see him fly over San Francisco Bay). He was inarguably one of these extremely talented but flawed people who pulls society out of its inertia and drags us forward at a brisk clip.

Scorsese succeeds in giving this strange man his due. The 20th century was a much more colorful place because Hughes. This notable film provides Hughes with a legacy that might otherwise fade a century from now. Scorsese has ensured Hughes will never be a footnote in history.

This film is well worth your time. I give it 3.3 on my 4.0 scale.

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