Released to coincide with the upcoming release of The Aviator, Martin Scorsese’s biopic on Howard Hughes, Bill Schwartz’s documentary, Howard Hughes: The Real Aviator, offers Hughes’ own perspective on his extraordinary life. Based on his letters and journals, and complemented with interviews with friends and associates, the film earned the top prize for documentary at the 2004 Berkeley Video and Film Festival.
Unlike other recent documentaries on Hughes—Howard Hughes: His Life, Loves and Films (2004), Howard Hughes and Jane Russell (2003), and Howard Hughes: His Women and His Movies (2000)—Schwartz’s focuses on the man’s contributions to and obsessions with aviation. The film chronicles his breaking of the land-plane speed record in 1935 and the circumnavigation record in 1939. It also documents his development of the “flying boat,” a 200-ton aircraft made of wood, and the XF11, a photo-reconnaissance aircraft, for the U.S. government while simultaneously addressing his growing reclusiveness and gradual dependency upon Codeine and Valium.
The documentary doesn’t rehash the well-worn Hollywood gossip of Hughes’ many relationships with stars such as Marion Davies, Carole Lombard, Ida Lupino, and Katherine Hepburn. Neither does it revisit his megalomaniacal idiosyncrasies while working within Hollywood: shooting 2.5 million feet of footage for the 15,000 foot film Hell’s Angels (1930); hiring Howard Hawks to direct Scarface (1932) while Hughes was suing him for plagiarizing Hell’s Angels; and designing a bra for Jane Russell to emphasize her breasts in The Outlaw (1943). Instead, The Real Aviator argues that Hughes’s most important legacy belongs to aviation.
Yet this particular focus is also the film’s weakness, as it depoliticizes his governmental aviation work and distances it from his rather notorious anti-Communism and anti-Semitism. Only one side of the coin is disclosed: Hughes as entrepreneur and patriot. Overlooked is how his patriotism led to the ruin of many individuals’ lives. He assisted the House Un-American Activities Committee to weed out supposed Communists from the movie industry and actively petitioned Congress to prevent the Blacklisted film Salt of the Earth (1954) from ever being completed.
The Real Aviator‘s repression of such political issues creates a hagiographic vision of Hughes as a Great Man. Though he had personal problems (drug addiction and misogyny), the film mentions these as incidental, without consequence to the world at large, mainly self-inflicted wounds that make him the primary victim of his actions. He becomes another Charles Foster Kane, with planes serving as his Rosebud.
With regard to Hughes’ famous misogyny, Robert Maheu, a Senior Executive for Hughes, briefly comments, “It was not so much that he wanted personal affairs with [women] but to control them in some form.” Nothing more is said. Similarly, many interviewees claim that he became addicted to codeine and valium during his hospital recovery after a near fatal plane crash. But no one postulates how drug addiction might be related to more significant personal issues. The documentary mentions Hughes’ close relationship with his mother—his ex-wife Terry Moore refers to it as “smother love”—and her death at a very early age. Yet it doesn’t draw what seem obvious conclusions: the loss of his mother might have translated into his misogynistic attitude towards women, and his drug use and obsessive flying precluded any intimate relationships where he might be made as vulnerable as he was to his mother. The documentary’s reliance on Hughes’ journals and letters prevents such connections, since he was so disconnected from his past and the people around him.
The film thus offers a rather choppy narrative. When it presents Hughes’ Hollywood-based pampering of Colonel Elliot Roosevelt in order to obtain a government aviation contract, it unexpectedly includes footage of the questioning of Johnny Meyer (Hughes’ public relations man) during the Brewster Hearings, for charging a pair of nylon stockings for a starlet as “aircraft production.” The relation between these two points remains unclear and circumstantial, and only later in the film is it explained that the Brewster Hearings were convened against Hughes for his alleged misappropriation of government funds in his flying boat contract.
For all its structural weaknesses, The Real Aviator provides stunning new footage of Hughes. The DVD extras, in particular, contain a wealth of rare archival footage, including interviews with Moore, Hughes’ friend Jack Real, personal aide George Francom, and senior executive, Robert Maheu. Featurettes include Hughes Conquers Hollywood (trailers for Hughes’ films Hell’s Angels, The Outlaw, and The Conqueror ); Hughes Takes on the U.S. Government offers newsreels and raw footage of Hughes at the Brewster Hearings; and The Flying Boat and The Constellation present outtakes and newsreels of Hughes unveiling his flying boat and monster helicopter.
Such imagery is thrilling for viewers who have only read about these events in such Hughes biographies as David Barrett and James Steele’s Empire: The Life, Legend, and Madness of Howard Hughes (1979) or Peter Brown and Pat Broeske’s Howard Hughes: The Untold Story (2004). One wishes that the film incorporated this footage more fully, along with more biographical details.