Making a film about Howard Hughes is quite a challenge, given that the man was largely an enigma even to those who knew him best. How do you tell the story about who struggled to hide his numerous demons and lived the last few decades of his life in virtual seclusion from the world? Director Martin Scorcese wisely chose to concentrate on the part of his life that was lived in the public eye but that is also part of the weakness of The Aviator. The facts presented here are well known to those familiar with the life of Howard Hughes and don’t really offer an incisive look at the private man.
What it does show is handsomely produced and well-acted. Leonardo DiCaprio shows exactly why he is Scorcese’s new favorite actor, giving a performance that hints at the private demons that script doesn’t explore. Alec Baldwin is positively reptilian as Pan American Airways owner Juan Tripp and Alan Alda is effectively weaselly as Senator Ralph Owen Brewster of Maine. Cate Blanchett disappears into the role of Katherine Hepburn. With all apologies to Kate Mulgrew, if someone wants to do a movie of Hepburn’s life, Blanchett is their actress.
Fortunately, Howard Hughes’ public life was sufficiently interesting to make this film both entertaining and informative. The Aviator divides his life into three stages, four if you count the Spruce Goose and his war with Pan Am and Senator Brewster as separate stages that just happened more or less simultaneously. It starts with his Hollywood years and the production of Hell’s Angels. Here we first get the impression that Hughes may have been, among other things, severely obsessive-compulsive. His insistence that everything be “just so” results in the film being re-shot twice, the last time with sound. They’re probably lucky he didn’t elect to re-shoot a third time using the color processes that were just being invented. His experience flying his own planes in the movie leads him into aviation, building and testing his own planes. Success in that field leads to the founding of Hughes Aircraft and the purchase of what would become Trans World Airlines (TWA).
Getting into the airline business puts him head to head with Juan Tripp and Pan Am. Tripp wants Pan Am to have a monopoly on international air travel from the United States and is not above bribing congress to have his airline declared the nation’s official international carrier. The last part of the film focuses on Hughes’ simultaneous battles with Senator Brewster over the airline bill and charges of “war profiteering” during WWII as well as his own mental illness.
The material dealing with Pan Am is fascinating when viewed from a present day perspective. The idea of congress declaring a company the official anything of the United States is a completely alien concept today. If they tried to pass a bill today making Microsoft the official national software company, the proverbial shit would hit the fan.
That said, for all the historical detail, the figure standing at the center of these events remains frustratingly opaque.