Mark Reviews Movies


4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, John C. Reilly, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, Ian Holm

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, sexual content, nudity, language and a crash sequence)

Running Time: 2:50

Release Date: 12/17/04 (limited); 12/25/04 (wide)

Bookmark and Share     Become a fan on Facebook Become a fan on Facebook     Follow on TwitterFollow on Twitter

Review by Mark Dujsik

In the hands of Martin Scorsese, the story of Howard Hughes becomes a great American tragedy, as the drive that propels the enigmatic genius to greatness ultimately becomes the impetus for his inevitable downfall. Hughes' name brings about images of caricature—long fingernails, unkempt hair, and a scraggly beard—but before he became the most famous recluse until J.D. Salinger, he was a charming rebel. He insisted that for the epic aerial battle in his film Hell's Angels he need twenty-six cameras, not twenty-four. He had famous starlets of the time on his arm at premieres and dated an equally complicated actress for a considerable time. He was commissioned by the Army to build spy planes, and he threw his own money around on all of these ventures, knowing that, damn it, it would be worth it in the end. The fact that all of this was only the beginning of a lifelong struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder that would lead him to lock himself away from the world in the penthouse of one of his Las Vegas hotels to die alone en route to a hospital makes his successes and struggles within The Aviator all the more tragic.

The film starts with Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the late 1920s, after he took over control of his late father's Houston tool company at the age of nineteen. Around this time, he is working on his World War I epic, which will turn out to be the most expensive movie of its time. He spends his nights at the Coconut Club, hobnobbing with Hollywood elite and desperately trying to get help from studio heads to complete his pet project. They, needless to say, turn him down, thinking the effort insane. The film finally completes shooting, and his experience leads him to found Hughes Aircraft Company as a subsidiary of his tool company. He designs and flies planes that break speed records and eventually buys up TWA on a lark. In the meantime, his Hollywood career flourishes as a producer, and his love life finds some stability for a time with Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett). His obsession with perfection begins to overwhelm the facets of his life, as he slowly but steadily neglects Hepburn for his planes, and his business venture with TWA hits a major roadblock when the head of Pan American Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) attempts to monopolize the international airline industry with the help of Senator Owen Brewster (Alan Alda).

If the film sounds event-oriented, that is my fault. Screenwriter John Logan covers the major events of Hughes' life until his decline in the 1940s, focusing on the blurred lines between his private, public, and professional life, but the script also examines how these episodes led Hughes down the path to complete isolation. An opening scene portrays the young Hughes (Jacob Davich) being washed by his mother (Amy Sloan) in an almost oedipal fashion, while she drills into him the idea that the world is an unclean place. At first, the obsession is with perfection, as no concept is too large to tangibly realize. Upon his first entrance into the Coconut Club, the lights gradually illuminate around him, as if the world were opening up before him, and with his ambition, it does. The culmination of all of this is his work on an airborne battleship the Hercules, a plane the public ridicules as "The Spruce Goose."  For all of his professional triumphs, one failure nearly costs him his life, and Scorsese attains a frightening visceral immediacy in an extended sequence showing a failed test flight of one of Hughes' spy planes, which leaves him permanently scarred from intense burns.

The darker side of his obsession manifests itself in his growing mania with cleanliness and paranoia. For all his business savvy, Hughes is a veritable social misfit, and the film suggests that his falling out with Hepburn dragged him into the darkest recesses of his psyche. Not that a steady relationship between the two would seem possible, considering their differences in background. They both come from money, but in a dinner scene with her family, their respective attitudes about their station in life come out. The Hepburns say, as socialists (wishful thinking, considering how they live), they don't worry about money, leading to Hughes' great retort, "That's because you have it."  Hepburn eventually leaves him, under the reasoning that "There's too much Howard Hughes in Howard Hughes," and the separation puts him in a constant state of emotional distress. Now, he's hiring young women (one is fifteen) to escort him and bugging Ava Gardner's (Kate Beckinsale) bedroom and telephone. A set of scenes earlier in which Hughes is physically unable to touch his food after Errol Flynn (Jude Law) takes some, sending him into the restroom where he is literally trapped because he cannot bring himself to open the door, hint at a haunting sequence inside his screening room.

Here is where the Hughes of myth appears, locked away from the world, naked, urinating in jars, and giving specific orders for anyone who comes in contact with him. He keeps people out, and the red light that indicates a visitor overwhelms him. The film's tragedy is summed up in this image—a torturous cell of his own devising—and it parallels the mind of the man himself—an untrusting enigma who will not allow anyone else into his world. The antithesis to this despair comes in the form of Robert Richardson's cinematography, which is bursting with popping colors, giving us a highly romantic view of the days of old. The special effects during the flying scenes are integrated skillfully, especially during the crash and in one shot where a camera is destroyed while filming the dogfight, leading Hughes to whip out a handheld one. More importantly, Leonardo DiCaprio embodies Hughes' never-say-never spirit and gives him an edge of boyish vulnerability, making his descent into madness all the more devastating. Cate Blanchett's Hepburn comes across as pure impersonation at first but progressively finds footing in her character, lending the most important relationship in the film significant weight.

The show belongs to Scorsese, though, who takes this biopic and gives it incredible depth. The Aviator puts us straight into Hughes' mindset, from his wistful view of a world ready for the taking to the shadowy cage of his later life. After one final personal, professional, and public victory during the course of a public Senate hearing for alleged war profiteering, the burden of his mental state finally takes its toll, and just as the world opened up for him in the beginning, the lights fade around him in the end, leaving him alone in a sorrowful hell of lost possibilities.

Copyright © 2005 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

Back to Home

Buy Related Products

Buy the Soundtrack

In Association with