#13 in my ranking of Martin Scorsese’s films.
Man, does Martin Scorsese love the movies. He takes the life of one of the most enigmatic individuals of the twentieth century and provides such an incredible focus on the movie side of things, even when he fully demonstrates that Howard Hughes saw himself as an aviator first and foremost. The only successful biopic of Howard Hughes made since his death, The Aviator is a glorious look at a man who made the most of the money he inherited, following his passions wherever the led him, told by a master of the form with more money than he’d ever worked with before.
I remember contemporaneous reviews of The Aviator that complained that the movie made no real attempt to explain Howard Hughes’ mental illness. Having made my opinions on movies that make light of mental illness by trying to provide easy answers (generally calling them trite), I’m actually a big fan of the direction that Scorsese and his screenwriter, John Logan, take in dealing with Hughes’ mental state. They simply present it. There’s no event from his childhood that is the source of his germaphobia or obsessive compulsive disorder. There’s no fix to the issues. They simply get worse over time, allowing him, for moments, to beat it back through focus on externalities, but never leaving him.
The movie begins in 1927 after Hughes has moved from Houston following the death of his parents that left him the fortune from their drill bit empire, and he has decided to make a movie, eventually released in 1930 after several years of production and the transition to sound. He has a vision for a film in his head, and the only reason people go along with him is because he pays them. They don’t need to see it, as long as he can meet payroll. One way that he plans on making this happen is by using a total of twenty-six cameras to film his big dogfight, but he only has twenty-four. So, he goes to the Coconut Grove, a setting that helps show the passage of time across the film, to see if Louis B. Mayer of MGM would lend him a pair, which Mayer, of course, refuses to do with condescension. These early scenes are important because they demonstrate Hughes’ intractability, his ability to see things others can’t (his vision), his pickiness which is the earliest form of his germophobic obsessive compulsiveness, and his complete ease with women when he picks up his waitress by barely even trying.
Hughes’ big bet on Hell’s Angels pays off with box office returns and accolades. His embrace of spectacle through a massive dogfight filmed with his twenty-six cameras is thrilling, and it touches Hughes’ central passion: aviation. While working on the film, he also employs an aviation engineer, Odie, as they try to dream up the fastest airplane in the world with Hughes questioning the need for a top wing when they could build monoplanes instead of biplanes. He sees something, and he just needs Odie to see the task at hand, a couple of steps behind, before Odie gets on board and gets as excited as Hughes.
In walks Cate Blanchett’s Katherine Hepburn. Hughes just flies up to a shooting location (seems like George Cukor’s Holiday), picks her up for a game of golf, and Blanchett makes a terrible first impression as Hepburn. It’s arch-imitation to the extreme. It’s like she’s playing Hepburn playing a part. After that, though, Blanchett tones down the imitation and begins to perform as an actor, and she becomes kind of great as the box office poison Hollywood star who finds some charm in this unconventional and slightly deaf transplant from Houston. She’s tender, excitable, endearing, and hurt in different measures. What she means to Hughes is she is someone he feels like he can trust. When he offers her a sip of his milk while she’s flying his plane, he takes a cautious sip afterwards. She means something to him, allowing him to force his fears aside and live his own life.
Airplanes do a similar thing for him. Talking about sending passenger craft tens of thousands of feet in the air over the weather gives him the kind of focus and passion, but his demons creep in. While discussing his plans, the entire conversation gets sidetracked because of a piece of lint on a lapel. As time progresses, and he works his way through the Second World War, developing planes for the Army that never see action, he becomes so obsessed over his work that Katherine drifts away towards Spencer Tracy. He replaces her with a string of young actresses, manifested most particularly by Faith Domergue at fifteen years old, and Ava Gardner who seems to see Hughes most clearly out of everyone. She never pretends love, refuses his gifts, but she’s still surprised at his levels of paranoia when he reveals that he’s bugged her house.
The planes, though, are where Hughes seems happiest. The flight of his XF-11, his spy plane, is probably Hughes at his height. A craft he designed completely, it flies beautifully until something goes wrong and he ends up crashing the plan horribly, disfiguring himself for the rest of his life and barely escaping alive. He built something, sinking not only government funds but his own into its creation, he flew it for a while, and it all came crashing down either because of a small design flaw, pilot error, or a manufacturing error. It’s kind of the microcosm of Hughes’ whole life. He saw the impossible, he made it real, and it all came apart in the end.
He ends up facing off with the federal government and Pan-Am Airways in the form of Senator Brewster from Maine and Juan Trippe from Pan-Am. Owning TWA and with the first 40 Constellation aircraft that can fly for three thousand miles, Hughes wants to take TWA international from New York to Europe, but Pan-Am has an effective American monopoly on that, and they want to preserve it. So, Trippe writes up legislation for Senator Brewster to file in the Senate that will make the effective monopoly into a state sanctioned monopoly, which Hughes fights, and for having the audacity to fight, Brewster decides to humiliate Hughes in a public Senate hearing. Since Hughes has little shame and has lived his sordid life in public to one degree or another for years, the threat of embarrassment does little for him, and he enjoins Brewster in the battle of words and wit, ultimately coming out on top when he admits to having poured his own money into the undelivered planes he was designing for the war effort, negating the idea that he was a war profiteer. This gets framed with the single flight of the troop plane the Hercules, the Spruce Goose.
Why get involved in this man’s life? Why watch a three-hour film about the first half of his time on Earth? First and foremost, the man was interesting and he did interesting things. He bedded movie stars, made movies, flew and designed airplanes, fought the US government and won, and he did it all while battling undiagnosed mental illness that ultimately hobbled him. That Scorsese is able to take that story and tell it with his nearly trademarked energy and visual inventiveness is what makes the whole affair fun to sit through and watch unfold. The use of digital color grading to imitate color film production from different eras gives the film an incredibly distinctive look, especially the early parts that have bluish greens like were produced with two-strip technicolor.
Scorsese drops us into this world, and it’s thrilling from beginning to end. Hughes led a life we would all love to lead at some level. He lived brashly, well, and dangerously. Going along for the ride with well-rounded characters, impeccable cinematic technique, and strong performances all around, The Aviator is the work of a master filmmaker bringing his passion into a project and making it his own.