THE AVIATOR: Directed by Martin Scorsese. Written by John Logaa. Produced by Michael Mann, Sandy Climan, Graham King, Charles Evans Jr. Executive producer, Chris Brigham. Cinematography, Robert Richardson. Editor, Thelma Schoonmaker. Production design, Dante Ferretti. Costume design, Sandy Powell. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, with Cate Blanchett, John C. Reilly, Alec Baldwin, Kate Beckinsale and Jude Law. Also with Matt Ross, Adam Scott, Gwen Stefani, Ian Holm, Danny Huston, Alan Alda and Kelli Garner. Miramax Films, 2004. PG-13. 169 minutes.
Poor little rich boy: Orphaned by age 18, Texas-born Howard Hughes inherited Hughes Tool, the lucrative company his late father had built. He immediately began spending his fortune on the production of a film epic called Hell’s Angels, which cost $3.8 million and took years to make. Hughes continued to make films while escorting a number of film beauties around town, but all along, flying was his one true passion.
In one of the film’s sweetest scenes, Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) invites Kate Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) for a late night spin above Los Angeles in a plane from the private fleet he built for filming Hell’s Angels. Kate is game. Here, take the wheel, Hughes says, and she does. Two odd birds, their mutual attraction bonds them in a friendship that lasts long after the affair cools. Their relationship resonates because Hughes allows Kate to see his unstable inner life. She understands his demons, and her recognition of them makes her one of the few people he can trust.
Noah Dietrich (John C. Reilly) is another. When Hughes founds Hughes Aircraft in 1932, “Diet” becomes his life-long “second in command,” the one who always tells him the truth and always does what he wants in regard to his businesses. As a young man, Hughes was so full of ideas that he needed a well-grounded, solid business partner to manage his financial affairs. Dietrich always understood the boundaries of their relationship.
Another right-hand man was Glenn Odekirk (Matt Ross), the aeronautical engineer who created prototypes of major developments in aviation of the 20th century from Hughes’s futuristic designs and specifications. “Ode” tried to keep Hughes’ risk-taking behavior to a minimum, but no force on earth could keep the guy from flying. It was his life and nearly his death.
Stepping in for a brief appearance, Jude Law captures the devil-may-care reputation of action movie star Errol Flynn in a scene at the Cocoanut Grove, Hollywood’s ’40s hangout. Gwen Stefani, known as the lead singer for No Doubt, plays the blonde bombshell, Jean Harlow. And Ian Holm plays a slightly befuddled Professor Fitz, who gets the ride of his life in the Hercules’ only flight.
The film’s most thrilling sequences is Hughes’ 1946 plane crash of the experimental XF-11 into residences in Beverly Hills, in part because it perfectly explores his incredible will to live in the face of near-certain death.
The trajectory of the film narrative requires DiCaprio to age 20 years or so, and he does so gracefully, the older man gradually coming into possession of the exuberant younger man’s personality and demeanor. His award-worthy performance will be noted.
Hughes’s long descent into madness was not diagnosed during the 20-years period of the film — the late 1920s through the late 1940s. His breakdowns began in the mid-1940s. He suffered from what is now recognized as obsessive-compulsive behavior with paranoia, and the episodes became both more debilitating and more frequent. In the early phases of his mental illness, Howard could recover enough to work. But by the mid-’60s, he became a reclusive eccentric. He died in April of 1976, recognizable only from his fingerprints.
Scorsese brought along two of his long-time collaborators: editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who has worked on all his pictures, and production designer Dante Ferretti, who collaborated on The Age of Innocence, Casino, Kundun, Bringing out the Dead and Gangs of New York. Costume designer Sandy Powell also worked on Gangs. Cinematographer Robert Richardson worked with the director on Casino (1995) and Bringing out the Dead (1999). The quality of technical support they bring to The Aviator help make the project “a Scorsese film,” even though the director was hired by DiCaprion and the script was written by John Logan.
A four-star film by any cinematic standard, The Aviator is a beauty. Critics who assert the film doesn’t show enough of Hughes’ dark side wanted a different picture, one that didn’t get made. This portrait of the young aeronautical designer, business entrepreneur, maverick filmmaker and futurist can stand on its own, strong merits.
Now showing at Cinemark and Cinema World, The Aviator receives my very highest recommendations. Footnote: The Spruce Goose resides in an aviation museum in McMinnville.