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‘The Aviator’ Soars Past Other Biopics to Capture Hughes’s Rich Life

by Jeremy Mathews
Leonardo DiCaprio, as Howard Hughes, gazes at one of his airplane models as he would at one of his women.

“The Aviator”
Miramax Films
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by John Logan
Produced by Sandy Sliman, Leonardo DiCaprio, Charles Evans Jr., Graham King and Michael Mann
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 and Stanley DeSantis
Rated PG-13

(out of four)

While today Howard Hughes is perhaps best known for his irrational paranoia and reclusive behavior in the years leading to his death, Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Aviator’ reminds us that he was also a man who moved the world in startling new directions, both through aviation and cinema. His accomplishments are even more remarkable when you consider that if the public bathroom was out of towels, he’d be trapped inside until someone else opened the door.

While biopics often tend towards a lack of focus stemming from an effort to cover too much material, Scorsese, who reinvented the genre in 1980 with ‘Raging Bull,’ makes ‘The Aviator’s’ three hours pass by without a wasted moment. The film focuses on Hughes’s days as a young man who challenged the systems of the aircraft and film industry while he created impressive milestones in both. The film extensively explores his mental seclusion, but wisely concludes before the decades Hughes spent in solitude. The act of watching a man trapped in insanity until death doesn’t translate well to cinema, as it has no dynamic pull.

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If Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan had attempted to explain Hughes’s disorder, it would have been an act of futility. The tragedy of Hughes is that everything was irrationally overblown, whether the necessity to make the fastest plane or avoid disease. While the germs, unhealthy air and betrayal that horrify him are all legitimate concerns, Hughes’s remarkable mind blew them all out of proportion.

But his first landmark accomplishment was a work of cinema. ’The Aviator’ begins in Hollywood during 1927, as Hughes has left his family’s drill bit company in Houston and is offending the film studios by financing and directing his own grand epic, ‘Hell’s Angels.’ Hughes lets the budget and schedule run away with his desire to have the perfect clouds for his real fleet of planes to zoom past. He needs 26 cameras to get the shots for his sequence, which recreates a giant air fight, but only has 24. So he walks up to Louis B. Mayer and asks if he can borrow two more, receiving the expected mockery and advice to return home before losing more money.

Scorsese shows the insane danger of the ‘Hell’s Angels’ shoot, brought about by Hughes’s inability to deny his vision. With two cameras mounted on his wings and one in his hands, Howard pilots his plane around a slew of others spinning out of control and nose-diving. But when the film was finally completed, it was an amazing spectacle with astounding combat footage, and marked the future of big-budget event epics.

Hughes was known for his many loves, the most notable character in the film being Katherine Hepburn. Another great Cate, Blanchett, portrays the actress in a tender performance that, while at first feels like a forced imitation due to Hepburn's unique speech, reveals itself to be a heartfelt exploration of the actress’s own unique psychosis. Although Hughes’s love for women was known, a cut from a sex scene with Hepburn to Hughes feeling the surface of an airplaneãwith his reflection in it, no lessãsuggests the range of his passions.

Hughes’s personality led to early marks of progress in several fields. He also challenged the strict standards of decency in his time, first with violence in Howard Hawks’s ‘Scarface’ (1932), then with 1943’s ‘The Outlaw,’ an unapologetic celebration of Jane Russell’s breasts. One of the film’s funniest scene depicts an scientific appeal for Jane Russell’s cleavage before the Motion Picture Board. ‘The Aviator’ also shows Hughes ushering the future of airplanes, with innovative design and the demand to fly higher for less turbulence, which made more people willing to travel on commercial airliners. He also broke speed and other kinds of records, most notably for size with the Hercules, popularly known as the Spruce Goose, a craft designed to cary military equipment and personnel.

The Hercules is used as an example of misuse of government funds in a smear campaign designed to help pass a law written by PanAm and its president, Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) and proposed by a bought senator (Alan Alda). The law would enforce a monopoly of international air travel, based on a bunch of nonsense about no competition providing better deals.

Hughes bought TWA so he could make planes without pencil-pushing board members worrying about money, and his nerve to challenge PanAm’s prominence is greeted with the same enthusiasm the Hollywood establishment gave him. His enemies, however, use their resources to find ways to mentally torment Hughes and invade the most paranoid parts of his mind.

Scorsese is one of the best directors alive, and while he doesn’t show off his virtuosity as much as he has in some of his past films, he tells the story perfectly. In one of the scenes set in Cocoanut Grove club’s bathroom, Howard breaks down after a stressful situation and finds himself without a towel to turn the doorknob. Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker build suspense from a little life event, depicting a man deciding whether to be trapped in a bathroom or encounter dangerous germs. The haunting image of Hughes, standing by the green tiles and door, crippled by his own psychosis, is striking in its honest simplicity. Another scene, in which he visits Hepburn’s condescending family, captures the stress of meeting the spouse’s family with added levels of comedic chaos and neurotic tragedy.

Scorsese has surrounded himself with a solid crew of technically and artistically proficient craftspeople. In addition to Schoonmaker, cinematographer Robert Richardson uses a variety of film stocks that recall the era and beautifully photographs every moment, whether an astounding aerial shot or a period hotel room brought to life with Dante Ferretti’s production design.

And in the center is DiCaprio, who follows in the tradition of great performances in Scorsese movies, matching the quality of ‘The Aviator’s’ visual elements as he follows the life of a man too obsessed to retain sanity and too ambitious to let the future pass by without his influence.

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