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The Aviator (2004)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

“Some men dream the future. He built it.”

The events in this film all happened before I was born, but contributed in a major way toward creating the world in which we all now live. Innovation and creativity that change the world come from people who see things from a novel angle. That unique perspective often has other implications. Howard Hughes possessed genius, ambition, drive and a distinctive viewpoint. However, he also had some personality features which few people would want to have. Martin Scorsese created this brilliant biography showing Hughes' very productive mostly pre-WWII years.

Although the film begins by showing a very young Howard Hughes (Jacob Davich) and his mother (Amy Sloan), the scene perhaps attempting to explain many of Hughes' later personality quirks, most of the movie deals with the adult life of Mr. Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio). Hughes had many interests, including : movie making, aviation and the opposite sex. All those interests are well represented in this film.

The meat of the story begins with Hell's Angels: Hughes' breakthrough film production covering the story of two brothers who became aviators in World War I. Hughes' efforts to capture the excitement and reality of aviation on film, induce him to spend great sums of money on production and go to other great lengths, such as hiring a meteorologist from UCLA: Professor Fitz (Ian Holm). He hires Prof. Fitz to find clouds, to provide a proper background for filming air scenes.

Also during this period Hughes hires a new business manager: Noah Dietrich (John C. Reilly) to take care of Hughes Tools, his tool business based in Houston, while he makes films in California. The tool company was built by his parents. It makes parts for the oil industry. Throughout the story, Hughes treats the tool company as a tool itself: a tool for producing money to pursue his preferred interests of both film and aviation.

That gives a small taste of his business interests: film and aviation, though the aviation at this point seen mostly from only the film making angle. As the movie progresses that emphasis changes to show more of his interest in aviation. Mr. Hughes flies his own planes, not only test piloting but regular travel too. In a neatly done scene, he flies in to a movie production set, introduces himself to Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), and asks her to play a round of golf. They leave in his plane, play golf and he teaches her to fly (no licenses, permits, etc.) They become lovers.

Later in the film, Hughes attempts to romance Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale), in most ways with less success; though perhaps with more lasting importance: she comes to his aid when he desperately needs a friend. Why would such a powerful and dynamic man need a friend so badly? Well, as social animals we all need friends; but there was more to Howard's circumstance.

As a businessman/millionaire keenly interested in aviation, Hughes had acquired TWA: later to become one of the leading commercial airlines in the world. This action put Hughes in conflict with PanAm and its leader Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin, seemingly always excellent as a villain). Mr. Trippe “owns” a politician: Sen. Ralph Owen Brewster (Alan Alda, also very good as a thoroughly corrupt "representative"). The conflict between Howard Hughes / TWA and Juan Trippe / PanAm / Sen. Brewster takes up the later portion of the film. Like Tucker - The Man and His Dream (in which Hughes makes an appearance, played by Dean Stockwell), The Aviator shows how American “free enterprise” really operates.

This movie has almost a three hour run time, however, I never felt like it dragged at all. A tremendous amount of material gets covered using a very large number of actors. What other film features actors like Jude Law (in a “bit” part as Errol Flynn) and Willem Dafoe in such small roles? I suspect they especially wanted to participate in this film. With this movie, Martin Scorsese made a film which probably should have won him and more of its actors Academy awards, though it did win many awards for cinematography, costume, art, editing and Cate Blanchett as Hepburn.

Leonardo DiCaprio excels in his role as Howard Hughes. I cannot think of a flaw in the film -- although its hero has a few -- but none a result of poor portrayal. Scorsese and his crew have created a classic for those who believe individuals can shape their world. Also, like Gangs of New York -– another fine Scorsese film achievement -- this film should appeal to many who question the modern American state. I heartily recommend The Aviator.

Screenplay

Score (soundtrack) CD

Music (soundtrack) CD