Partway through The Aviator, Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) presses his luck during a test flight over Beverly Hills. He’s so energized about the incredible speed of the XF-11, designed for use by the U.S. military, that he can’t quite absorb the danger in front of him. On the radio, his designer warns him to back off, but he just can’t, only realizing too late that the plane is headed out of control, that he’s “going down.”
The plane crashes awfully, slamming through a couple of houses and bursting into flames. A young soldier who happens to be in the area rushes to pull Hughes from the conflagration, and so, the genius adventurer miraculously survives, though he suffers burns over 70% of his body, multiple broken bones, punctured organs, and a gruesomely smashed face. And when the scene cuts from the hell of the crash to the quiet whiteness of the hospital, the harrowing is hardly over: Hughes’ accountant Noah Dietrich (John C. Reilly) hovers by his bedside, bearing another warning, that the U.S. has grounded his prospective fleet and Hughes Aircraft is also going under. Hughes is undeterred. He decides to spend his own $7 million to finish his dearest project, the Hercules, also known as his “white elephant” or the “spruce goose,” for its unheard of hugeness, literal woodenness, and sheer ridiculousness.
Hughes mostly recovers from his devastating injuries, meaning that his face is patched back together and he’s eventually able to walk (with a limp), chew food, and drive his cars. But he never quite gets over other damage, to his nerves, his psyche, even his soul. From this moment on, all of Hughes’ tics and neuroses, his paranoia and obsessive-compulsive behaviors, which you’ve witnessed in full-on flamboyance a few scenes before, will come roaring back to the surface. Or so you would think. As retold by Martin Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan, the spectacular deterioration of Howard Hughes here takes a pause, so that he can play American Hero, the mind behind TWA, fighting the evils of U.S. business, namely, the mutual back-scratching of government and corporate powers as embodied by Pan Am’s Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin, underplaying, thank goodness) and the reductively baleful Maine Senator Ralph Owen Brewster (Alan Alda).
It’s something of an odd role for Hughes at this point, as he’s previously made how own very profitable use of corporate structures to exploit just such interrelations. But the film makes his mission to keep international flight routes—the “skies!”—open to all traffic, less a matter of personal financing and politicking than an exercise of “American” spirit and independence. Focused on his grandest years—the preposterously over-scaled filmmaking (Hell’s Angels and The Outlaw) as well as the tremendous creativity and energy that he pours into flying machines—The Aviator portrays Hughes as a rebel and a genius, a dashing young man with ambition, hope, and nerve.
While the depiction is often breathtaking (mostly by dint of DiCaprio’s precise incarnation, reeling from extravagance to fanaticism to pained secretiveness), it’s also encumbered by Scorsese’s affection for biographically inclined epics. At their best (Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ), these films rethink personal stories as cultural and political reflections. At their worst (Gangs of New York), they turn awkwardly Spielbergian, relying on camera flourishes, overproduced backdrops, and emotional shorthands, instead of the deft details—of performance and visual interiority—that make Travis Bickle and Henry Hill such brilliant, unnerving figures.
The Aviator‘s most egregious use shorthand is a Rosebuddish gimmick, whereby little Howard first appears being threatened by his mother with quarantine, as she dumps on him her fear of germs and “coloreds.” (Ding, ding: here’s the key to his later compulsive disorder, quite stunningly rendered in one particular scene, when he’s frightened to leave a public restroom, because he can’t touch the doorknob that would release him.) While Howard soon becomes rich enough (parlaying his father’s drill bit money into a fortune) that no one tells him “no,” but instead, cover up for his “eccentricities.”
In between these scary bits (as when Hughes locks himself in his projection room, strips off his clothes, and pees into milk bottles, for weeks on end), the film paints him as a daring and naïve romantic, not only in his thinking about aviation as a means to benefit humanity, but also in his appeal for one of Hollywood’s most beautiful and beloved iconoclasts, Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett). Their match at first seems perfect: he invites her for a golf game, lets her pilot his plane, and thrills her with his wealthy-man’s nonconformity. When he’s crushed by his inability to mix with her haughty Connecticut family, and turns to meanness and obsession with his work, she leaves him for Spencer Tracy; The Aviator suggests that he never gets over this, but instead accelerates his descent into madness.
This is ostensibly helped by his subsequent “girlfriend” choices (whether he actually has sex with them is unclear), the independent-minded Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) and the financially compensated 15-year-old Faith Domergue (Kelli Garner). Howard is competitive, lonely, and ever misunderstood, and above all, unable to keep his mind in line; the film leaves open whether he might have been treated successfully, if only someone had tried to help him rather than making money off of him.
While Hughes’ most loyal associates—here Noah Dietrich and Ava Gardner, who returns after their messy breakup to tidy him for his congressional appearance—appear in The Aviator as patient souls, he is more generally surrounded by Hollywood cameos, including the starlet of Hell’s Angels, Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani dolled up for a minute on the red carpet), and party-crasher Errol Flynn (Jude Law, showing up just to show up), as well as a twittery professor (Ian Holm) initially brought in to gauge weather for movie shoots, and later looks extremely pleased to be among Howard’s admiring throng.
Howard is, of course, considerably less happy with all the dirt (metaphorical and literal) tracked in by his friends, employees, and associates. The film’s framing of his personal decline into a critique of U.S.-style arrogance, excess, and territorial pissing makes him the hero (even though he is prominent among the pissers). At the same time, and rather contradictorily, The Aviator is also a tale of familial dysfunction, making Howard into a victim of his strange mother, who instills in him a distrust of the world that only seems confirmed by his misfortunes—the plane wreck, for example (in historical fact, he endured more accidents).
By film’s end, Howard is left muttering repeatedly, “The way of the future, the way of the future,” into the mirror. The image is aptly disquieting, as he looks into his individual anguish as well as imminent, infinite national privilege and corporate self-interest. That The Aviator mostly lets Hughes—and more importantly, the nation that makes him—off the latter hook by positing him as a warrior against administrative corruptions (see the congressional hearing where he makes the bad senator quake) is a disappointment. Poised so patently as an Oscar-wanting epic, The Aviator ends up cutting back on the fascinating complexities of its subject.