Aviator, The (2004): Scorsese’s Biopic of Howard Hughes Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Oscar-Winning Cate Blanchett

The Aviator, the light (shallow) entertaining biopic of the young Howard Hughes, is Scorsese’s response to the long-held criticism that he’s not a storyteller and  can’t make a commercial movie for the mass public.

A sprawling, uniquely American saga, Aviator has scope rather than depth, covering two crucial decades in American history. Scorsese has chosen one of twentieth century’s most compelling figures, Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) an influential innovator, savvy industrialist, glamorous film producer, American risk-taker, and paranoid who ended up living reclusive life.

Scorsese’s consistent thematic turf–the tough, brutally violent macho gangster milieu–has worked against him with conservative viewers. Besides, Scorsese might have exhausted the thematic, stylistic, and even lyrical possibilities of gangster life, explored in at least a dozen films. As his first story to be entirely set in Hollywood, Aviator displays the talents of Scorsese the showman making a movie about Hughes the showman.

Historically, the story is framed between two major milestones in Hughes’ life. It opens with the making of Hell’s Angels in the late 1920s, when Hughes was barely an adult, and it culminates with TWA’s emergence as a major international airline in the late 1940s. Between these two junctures, the movie explores the torment and tumult of Hughes’ character, providing a glimpse into his dreams and demons.

Barely out of his teens, Hughes decides to use the inherited fortune from his father’s drill bit company to shoot a World War One dogfight-themed epic, Hell’s Angels. Bucking the Hollywood system as an independent producer, Hughes sets out to make a movie unlike any other, performing his outrageous aerial stunts and designing special aircraft. The success of the movie, Hollywood’s most expensive feature to date, catapults Hughes into international celebrity.

After founding Hughes Aircraft Company and shattering several speed records, Hughes becomes the most famous American flyer since Charles Lindbergh. In the 1930s, Hughes takes over the airline TWA, and begins efforts to usher America into the Jet Age by developing audacious plans to build the largest plane in the world, a flying boat known as The Hercules.

The movie also explores Hughes’ emotional life, specifically his love affairs with two of Hollywood’s most famous stars: the elegant, Yankee-bred Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and the luminous sex symbol Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale). The two stars represent very different kinds of women; each had a grounding effect on him, easing some of his fears while increasing others.

Hughes’ various medical maladies are detailed: the childhood loss of hearing that made him nearly deaf, the undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder that, combined with deeply-rooted germ phobia, would provoke bizarre behavior. Acutely aware of his fragilities and anxieties, Hughes shows constant fears of going mad, of losing the battle, which indeed happened at the end of his life.

Aviator also chronicles Hughes’ fierce competition with Pan American’s visionary head, Juan Truppe (Alec Baldwin); his life-long relationship with his right-hand man Noah Dietrich (John C. Reilly), and his public battles with Senator Own Brewster (Alan Alda). Sadly, in its weakest sequence, Aviator approaches the territory of a trashy TV Movie, portraying Hughes’ growing phobias and hysterical descent into madness that would result in complete withdrawal from the world.

Despite extensive research, writer John Logan fails to come with a fresh vision of Hughes. He treats Hughes as a nineteenth century-type entrepreneur who was a pioneer in two of the greatest phenomena of the twentieth centuries: aviation, with his innovative design and speed records, and filmmaking, with such innovative and scandalous movies as Hell’s Angels and Scarface.

Most audiences remember Hughes at the end of his life, as the crazy recluse, living in hotel rooms with long fingernails and empty Kleenex boxes as shoes. Rather shrewdly, Logan and Scorsese center on Hughes’ explosively creative and visionary youth, rather than his later bout with madness. Portraying a larger-than-life man in a larger-than-life manner, Aviator ends up mythologizing Hughes as a legendary figure imbued with aura of excitement, mystery, glamour, and eccentricity.

Hughes’ journey and self-knowledge makes him a poignant, brilliant yet lonely man. The film attempts to tell the tragic story of an extraordinarily handsome, bright, and energetic youngster who became tortured by his shortcomings. There’s a good deal of irony in the life of a dreamer-visionary who despite many achievements–huge industrialist, pioneering aviator, big-time producer and director–ended up alone and lonely.

Aviator doesn’t represent Scorsese’s best filmmaking. That honor still belongs to his New York trilogy: Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull. Nonetheless, it signals something new in Scorsese’s career: His ability to make an accessible movie that plays. Aviator is Scorsese vying for the mainstream–call it Scorsese Goes Hollywood.

Aviaor is plot-driven, unlike Mean Streets or Raging Bull, where the emphasis was on character development. Mean Streets was a character study of a small-time hood wrecked by Catholic guilt, and Taxi Driver offered a disturbing portrait of New York’s seedy side through the personality of a psychotic Viet-nam-vet cabbie.

Unlike many of Scorsese’s films, Aviator is dramatically shaped and doesn’t deal in ambiguity. It’s an easy movie to watch–audiences don’t have to work too hard. Aviator is a much warmer film than, say, King of Comedy or Kundun, lacking the detached coldness that has characterized many of Scorsese’s better films.

Unlike Raging Bull and GoodFellas, which don’t have the juicy trashiness that comes with rich biographical material, Aviator does. As accomplished as GoodFellas was, it had no arc and no climax. Aviator is classically structured as the rise-and-fall tale of Howard Hughes as an American icon.

In Raging Bull, Jake La Motta was an icon of brutishness, placed in a harsh tragedy, starkly filmed in black-and-white. In contrast, the color palette of Aviator is brighter, and the hero, Hughes, even when he descends into madness, is likable. Indeed, despite elements of alienation, paranoia and isolation, at heart, Aviator is not a controversial film. As screen hero, Hughes is not nearly as edgy, deviant, or problematic as Travis Bickle or La Motta.

Technically, Aviator displays the bravura filmmaking expected of Scorsese, with his gloriously whirling camera, freeze-frames, jump cuts. A triumphant piece of filmmaking, Aviator is presented with gusto–nearly every frame of this 166-minute-picture is vivid and exuberating.

Four of Scorsese’s regular collaborators contribute to the technical pyrotechnics and visual panache: editor Thelma Schoonmaker, costume designer Sandy Powell, production designer Dante Ferretti, and cinematographer Robert Richardson.

Aviator could have been easily called Hughes: The Man and His Dream, after Coppola’s epic biopicture, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, an interesting but disappointing attempt to portray another old-fashioned American hero. Interesting comparisons could be made between the meaning and place of Aviator and Tucker in the oeuvre of their respective directors.

Like Hughes, Preston Tucker (Jeff Bridges) was a visionary who dreams of taking on the Big Three automakers with a car that would give people high quality at a reasonable price. Unlike Tucker, which gets sentimental and contrived, Aviator is not sentimental but it certainly gets contrived. Witness Hughes’ reemergence after bouts of paranoia and descent into madness, during which he refused to see anyone. However, Scorsese succeeds where Coppola has failed, giving his saga a vibrant look and narrative sweep.

Tucker was perceived as an allegory of Coppola’s failed attempts to create his own movie studio. Aviator, too, could serve as an allegory of Scorsese, the visionary filmmaker who despite brilliance has never had major box-office success. By Scorsese’s standards, Aviator is pretty mainstream. What he and his movie need now is mainstream acceptance by the American public.