The old adage states that thereís a fine line between genius and insanity. Nobody exemplified that idea quite like Howard Hughes. When we think of Hughes, most of us tend to think of him when he was older Ė the worldís most famous eccentric millionaire. Martin Scorseseís new film, The Aviator, goes back to the days when Hughes was a young man who made movies, romanced famous actresses, and was a pioneer in the area of flight. This is different subject matter for Scorsese, who often stays close to the milieu of crime and gangsters; however, this is also one of his best, most entertaining movies to date.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hughes who, when he first meet him, has plunged nearly $2 million and two years of time into a complex war movie called Hellís Angels. The meticulous Hughes insists on realistic dogfight sequences, so he deploys an entire squadron of planes, each with a camera attached to it. Not even when a couple of pilots die while filming crash scenes is he deterred. The press constantly reports on the film, insisting that it is folly. Once the picture is finally done, Hughes decides to start from scratch and re-film it using that amazing new technological advance called sound.
Once Hellís Angels is released to enthusiastic response, Hughes returns to his true love of aviation. When heís not romancing hot Hollywood actresses like Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani), Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale), and Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), he is building experimental aircraft for the military, most notably an oversized cargo plane sarcastically referred to as the Spruce Goose. Hughes is shown as being a man of inspiration; if common wisdom says it canít be done, he sets out to do it. Several of his ideas prove truly groundbreaking, but when he purchases a major percentage of TWA stock in hopes of helping the company achieve transcontinental flight, Hughes gains the attention of ruthlessly ambitious Sen. Ralph Owen Brewster (Alan Alda).
Brewster is a close friend and political ally of Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin), who runs TWA competitor Pan-Am. They are the only airline doing transcontinental flights and want to keep it that way. As favor to his friend (for which he is compensated with a cushy committee appointment), Brewster accuses Hughes of ripping off the government with his experimental aircraft that donít quite deliver on their promises. In order to defend himself at a televised hearing, Hughes must overcome his own crippling Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder that has caused him to hide in his private screening room for weeks on end.
The Aviator looks at a very interesting chapter in the life of one of Americaís most famous and fascinating citizens. The mystery of Howard Hughes has grown so much over the decades that itís easy to forget just how influential and innovative he was in the area of flight. Without his contributions, modern aviation would not be what it is. Itís also interesting to get a glimpse behind the curtain to see Hughes, the ladiesí man, chasing after beautiful actresses. It seems as though he was as fascinated by them as they were by him. The film is so full of interesting facts and elements and events from Hughesí life that itís almost impossible to divert your attention away from the screen. This is an example of a fascinating story told well.
Working from a smart screenplay by John Logan, Martin Scorsese clearly relishes the chance to give us a more well-rounded picture of his subjectís life. You can sense the directorís admiration for Hughes filling every frame. Although Hughes had his well-publicized problems, he also clearly had a great amount of passion. Scorsese, meanwhile, obviously has a passion for telling the story of this big dreamer. The Aviator is one of those pictures where you can sense the thrill the director got from staging this subject matter. Nowhere is that more evident than in the way Scorsese depicts Hughes crashing his experimental jet into a residential section of Los Angeles. We can see the jetís wheels crushing the clay shingles of an adobe house as the plane runs across the roof. We can feel the combination of exhilaration and disappointment Hughes feels when he learns his plane will fly, but still has glitches. I really responded to the energy the film has in this and other scenes.
Leonardo DiCaprio seems a perfect choice to play Hughes. Both men achieved a lot of fame (and became first class babe magnets) at a very young age. DiCaprio very effectively captures the combination of inspiration, enthusiasm, and near-insanity that was a Hughes trademark. The actor also makes the transition believable when Hughes starts to slip into increasingly self-destructive compulsions. The supporting cast is quite good, but I particularly liked Cate Blanchett as Katherine Hepburn. Rather than going for a straight imitation, Blanchett chooses instead to capture the screen legendís essence; this was a wise choice because it makes Hepburn an important character in the story rather than a distraction.
The Aviator reaches its finale with the hearings in which Hughes comes face to face with Brewster and refuses to back down. His argument is a compelling one; without failure, there is no success. Howard Hughes was a lot of things, but above all he was a dreamer Ė one who wasnít afraid to shoot for the next level. This is not the first film about his life, but itís certainly the best.
( out of four)
The Aviator is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual content, nudity, language and a crash sequence. The running time is 2 hours and 50 minutes.
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