Directed by Martin Scorsese
Produced by Michael Mann/Sandy Climan and Charles Evans, Jr.
Written by John Logan
Music by Howard Shore
Cinematography by Robert Richardson
Edited by Thelma Schoonmaker
Based on “Howard Hughes: The Secret Life” by Charles Higham
THE AVIATOR doesn’t compare with past Scorsese masterpieces such as “Goodfellas” or “Taxi Driver” of course, but it’s a tremendously entertaining piece of work that is a good example of the storytelling power of Martin Scorsese. He’s very good at doing these period pieces and as he’s proved in past movies like “Gangs of New York” “The Age Of Innocence” and “The Last Temptation Of Christ” he’s wonderful at immersing us into the reality of whatever time period he’s dealing with. Nothing seems out of place and in THE AVIATOR he brings the larger-than-life quality of the 1920’s and 1930’s to brilliant life. It was a remarkable time in American history where movie stars were royalty and guys thought nothing of designing and building their own airplanes and flying around the world as the young Howard Hughes did.
As the movie begins, Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) is hip deep filming his World War I epic “Hell’s Angels”. Howard is looked upon by Louis B Mayer and the rest of the old school Hollywood crowd as something of a crackpot dilettante. A young Texas millionaire with more money than he knows what to do with, Hughes is advised to put his money in the bank and stay out of the movie business. And indeed, Hughes’ obsession with “Hell’s Angels” borders on insanity as he holds up shooting for months waiting for the clouds to be just right and spending days and days editing miles of aerial footage. And even after the movie is done, a new thing arrives on the scene, a talking movie called “The Jazz Singer”. Without missing a beat Hughes goes back out and reshoots the entire movie with sound.
The gamble pays off and Hughes is immediately catapulted into Hollywood superstardom, a world in which he is clearly uncomfortable but it allows him to meet some of the most beautiful woman of that day such as Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani) Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) who he romances with the same manic energy he attacks moviemaking as well as his other major love: airplanes.
Hughes designs revolutionary aircraft for commercial travel as well as military applications and one of his dreams is to build a gigantic troop and equipment transport plane called The Hercules that is made entirely out of wood and weighs 400,000 pounds. Why wood? Well, it’s being built during wartime and a plane that big would take up too much aluminum vitally needed elsewhere. Hughes grandly envisions the plane as a ‘magnificent flying Spanish galleon’ while his advisors stand behind him making corkscrewing motions with their index fingers pointing at their temples.
But in the meantime Hughes keeps himself busy breaking every existing aviation record on the books, buys controlling stock in TWA, has public and private battles with his main competitor Pan Am president Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) and his paid for pet politician Senator Ralph Owen Brewster (Alan Alda). But there’s a darker battle being waged inside of the brilliant eccentric as his minor quirks, phobias and compulsive acts grow more and more pronounced and increasingly stranger, threatening his sanity as he is called before a Congressional hearing to face charges of war profiteering.
A lot of what makes THE AVIATOR so enjoyable is Scorsese focusing on the young Howard Hughes during his days as a daredevil pilot/businessman/playboy/adventurer/filmmaker. I only knew of Howard Hughes from his later reclusive years when he hid out in his Las Vegas penthouse, rarely seen by anybody until his death and knew very little about his early years. One thing THE AVIATOR did is spark in me an interest to know more about the early days of Howard Hughes as I had very little idea of the tremendous influence Hughes had on the state of commercial aviation in this country that still resonates today.
But you don’t wanna hear a history lesson. You want to know if THE AVIATOR is worthwhile movie entertainment and I’d definitely have to say yes. Leonardo DiCaprio is excellent as Howard Hughes. DiCaprio is a likable, strong actor and he takes us through the many different aspects of Hughes, from the early scenes where Hughes hits Hollywood like a runaway comet to the later, more disturbing scenes where Hughes has locked himself for days in a projection room, lost in his obsessive compulsive behavior, watching his movies over and over again.
But strangely enough, most of the supporting actors come off as being sort of bland and they didn’t stick with me. Kate Beckinsale shows up as Ava Gardner and while it was really nice to see Miss Beckinsale act with human beings for a change instead of CGI werewolves and vampires, there wasn’t anything about her performance that really made her stand out.
John C. Reilly plays Hughes’ right hand man Noah Dietrich but he’s badly underused here. His only function seems to be to yell and bitch at Hughes about how much money they’re losing or to continually give Hughes bad news. I never got to see why Hughes places so much trust in this guy or why he’s supposed to such a business genius. Ian Holm barely gets anything to do as Professor Fitz, except for one extremely brief scene where Hughes passes him off as a mathematical expert to explain why Jane Russell’s breasts aren’t any larger than any other Hollywood actress. Jude Law shows up as Errol Flynn (THE AVIATOR was one of the movies in the 2004 Jude Law Film Festival) but if you sneeze you’ll miss him and Gwen Stefani makes no impression as Jean Harlow.
But Cate Blanchett as Katherine Hepburn is wonderfully goofy and downright nutty. You get the impression that Katherine Hepburn was as eccentric as Hughes and if it hadn’t been for Spencer Tracy (Kevin O’Rourke) coming along; she might have been able to keep him grounded in reality. Next to DiCaprio, it’s the best performance in the movie and unfortunately, once Katherine Hepburn takes up with Tracy and leaves Hughes, the movie loses some of its zip as Hughes’ relationships with Ava Gardner and Faith Domergue (Kelli Garner) aren’t nearly as interesting.
What are way more interesting are the scenes with Howard Hughes building and flying airplanes. Guys who design, build and fly their own planes are unbearably cool and there are a lot of terrific scenes with Hughes delighting in the sheer freedom of flying his planes, especially near the end of the movie where he proves to the world that his five story tall superplane (which has been mockingly nicknamed ‘The Spruce Goose’) actually can fly.
So is THE AVIATOR worth your time? I certainly think so. It’s a Martin Scorsese movie, which should automatically place it on your Must See List, and it’s an extraordinarily well-made movie full of period detail told with energy and excitement. DiCaprio, Blanchett and Baldwin all turn in strong performances and I think that if nothing else, the movie will intrigue viewers enough to want to find out more about Howard Hughes on their own. Most definitely check it out.