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The Aviator (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jul 18, 2023

The Aviator

The Aviator


Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, John C. Reilly, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, Ian Holm, Danny Huston, Gwen Stefani, Jude Law, Adam Scott, Matt Ross, Kelli Garner, Frances Conroy, Brent Spiner, Stanley DeSantis, Edward Herrmann, Willem Dafoe, Kevin O’Rourke, Loudon Wainwright III, Martha Wainwright and Rufus Wainwright.

Screenplay by John Logan.

Directed by Martin Scorsese.

Distributed by Miramax Pictures.  169 minutes.  Rated PG-13.

People just don’t live like Howard Hughes anymore.  Hughes was the ultimate alpha male.  He flew higher, went faster, planned bigger and dated the most beautiful women in the world.  Anytime someone suggested that he could not do something, he would move heaven and earth to prove them wrong.  When he needed to test something, he did it himself.  No relying on his subordinates.  The buck stopped with him, and if he believed in something enough to build it, he believed in it enough to live or die with it.

Of course, there was a dark side to Howard Hughes.  Since his childhood, he battled to keep his mental health.  He had a paralyzing germ phobia, he was often unreasonably paranoid, could be obsessive compulsive and sometimes saw imaginary people.  When he was young, these compulsions could somewhat be kept in check, but as he got older, it became harder and harder to control.

The interesting thing is that Hughes’ neuroses were probably at least partially what made him able to become the richest man in the world.  His obsessive compulsions honed his ability to understand complex problems and his apparent lack of fear to risk everything — personally and financially — for his company. He was smart enough and lucky enough that it always seemed to end up working out for him.

Hughes was born into money, but he never was willing to fall back into the family’s safe, rather boring industrial business.  Hughes was much more drawn to the glamour that money could bring.  His first attempt to make it on his own was when Hughes decided to get into the movie business. 

As was his way, he couldn’t do anything small and he was obsessive about even the tiniest detail, so in the time of silent movies he spent two years and an unheard of two million dollars to film his aerial war story Hell’s Angels.  Then, when the film was finally ready but became a little obsolete because of the advent of the sound picture, instead of releasing his movie as is, he doubled the time and money spent to re-film the story in sound.

This kind of expenditure should have broken him, and it would have a lesser man, but Hughes was able to make it work.  Hughes became the toast of Hollywood society, becoming engaged to Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett in an uncanny impersonation) and releasing films that were groundbreaking in terms of violence (Scarface) and sex (The Outlaw with Jane Russell).

However, Hughes’ true love was flying.  He was a natural in the field, teaming with his experts to create the fastest and largest planes ever, taking over the struggling TWA airline and making it a powerhouse.

Martin Scorsese is the perfect choice to direct Hughes’ story because it is obvious that he loves the shiny toys, baubles and beautiful women just as much as his subject does.  He has created the kind of film that Hughes would have undoubtedly approved of.  This movie is stunningly beautiful, packed to the gills with interesting gadgets, flashing lights, retro glamour and the kind of huge dreams that Hughes specialized in.

DiCaprio cements his reputation as one of the best actors working, creating a multi-layered tycoon who was brilliant, fearless, charming and yet at the same time tortured.  Blanchett and Kate Beckinsale (as Ava Gardner) are wonderful as the Hollywood starlets whom he never married but retained long-standing friendships with after their romances fizzled.

There are a whole bunch of interesting cameos, including Jude Law as Errol Flynn (continuing Law’s impressive attempt to be in every movie released in 2004), singer Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow, Kevin O’Rourke as Spencer Tracy, Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under) as Katherine Hepburn’s mother and the entire singing Wainwright family (father Loudon and children Rufus and Martha) as a jazz troupe.

As the film goes on, Hughes’ demons start to overtake him and we see the beginnings of his downfall.  He never lost his fortune, but in his later years Hughes almost never left his suite at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, never bathed, never cut his nails, just watched his movies over and over alone.  To get a better idea of how Hughes ended up, go to your video store and try to track down Jonathan Demme’s great 1980 movie Melvin and Howard, which was based upon Hughes’ infamous contested Mormon will and featured Jason Robards in a staggering supporting performance as Hughes towards the end of his days.

In a world where it sometimes seems that we have forgotten how truly dream big, The Aviator is an exhilarating memento of American ingenuity.  It is also a sobering reminder of how closely connected brilliance and madness can sometimes be.   (12/04)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2004  All rights reserved. Posted: January 1, 2005.

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