Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by John Logan
Martin Scorsese works with talented people on both sides of the camera and The Aviator is certainly no exception to this axiom. While the skillful performances of Leonardo DiCaprio and Cate Blanchett, portraying Howard Hughes and Katherine Hepburn, are the most obvious and most talked about, their work is equaled, if not surpassed, by the brilliant look of the film created by the crews working under cinematographer Robert Richardson and production designer Dante Ferretti. Their combined artistry and craftsmanship create an amazing authentic version of America’s past through the usage of different film stocks and wonderful set details. As the film illustrates Hughes’ crews striving towards perfection to meet his vision that same level of dedication and determination is matched by Scorsese’s crew in the creation of his vision.
The Aviator covers two decades of Hughes’ life as he crisscrosses the country in pursuit of his ambitions. Different aspects of his aviation dreams frame the film, beginning in the 1920’s at the desert locations of his directorial debut, Hell’s Angels and concluding in 1947 with his triumph of Hercules, the flying boat that was better known by its derisive name, Spruce Goose. Hughes tackles obstacles head on throughout the story: the exclusivity of the Hollywood establishment, trumped-up charges at a U.S. Senate hearings, even battling against the known limits of physics. All these conflicts were made much more difficult because of the mental illness he suffered from: a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder that had paralyzing effects. The story of Hughes is fascinating, but it is at times unbelievable even though I have no doubt the events are accurate.
The moral of the story seems to be that if you have enough money, you can accomplish anything you set your mind to, a lesson I am well aware of from living in the U.S. Hughes was always willing to sacrifice his entire fortune for his dreams, which is reinforced by the numerous scenes with the wasted talents of John C. Reilly as Noah Dietrich, the man who ran the financials for Hughes’ companies. In almost every scene he appears Dietrich tells Hughes that the company is going to go bankrupt if he continues spending money on his latest project. Hughes always comes up with a plan to handle the finances and everything works out. While that may be true of what took place, it lessens the conflict of the story. The only purpose Dietrich serves is to create artificial conflict and tension, the same way that Scotty on Star Trek was constantly screaming that the Enterprise “canna handle anymore.” Kirk knew better and the ship always came out unscathed. When the conflict is so easily resolved, it lessens the tension and lowers the stakes of the story.
The weakest element in the film is the script because it created so many questions for me. I would have like to have learned how Hughes Tools grew to such stature to provide for Hughes’ every whim. Also, I was never clear about what, if anything, caused his episodes of madness. And if Hughes was so germphobic, how he could be with so many women as the film alludes to? As wonderful as sex is, it can be messy and for someone who had to have his peas laid out on a plate in a certain pattern the two desires appear incongruous, but then again, does madness make any sense to those of us on the outside of it?
The Aviator is an interesting biography set during interesting time in our country’s history. The last scene was fantastic in the way it foreshadowed the madness that Hughes’ life would eventually succumb to. It’s very simple and very clear in what the future holds for Howard without telling us directly.
While I found the film to be technically marvelous, especially the recreation of Hughes’ crashing of the XF-11 in Beverly Hills, a thrilling action sequence because of its realistic effects, I felt a tad empty when it was finished. I didn’t feel I had watched a Scorsese picture. Instead, it felt more like the most elaborate episode of an A&E Biography. There was none of his usual touches thematically or technically. The film comes off like just an assignment for him, a job he had to take to show he could deliver a movie so the money people in Hollywood might take another chance on one of his films since Gangs of New York didn’t turn out so well. There’s no opening credit sequence identifying it was Marty’s film, so that might have been a clue right there. It’s a very good picture, just not a very good Scorsese picture. I enjoyed watching it, but I don’t envision watching it repeatedly like I do many of his other films.