Movie Review


The Aviator

Production Company: Miramax
Director: Martin Scorsese
Principals: Leonardo DiCarpio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, Alec Baldwin, John C. Reilly, Alan Alda, Gwen Stefani, Kelli Garner.
Rating: PG-13 (thematic elements, sexual content, nudity, language and crash sequence)

By Gregg Tubbs

(UMCom)—It seems that the words "tortured" and "genius" have been linked throughout history. With The Aviator, director Martin Scorsese and star Leonardo DiCaprio breathe fresh life into this old story with a soaring and soulful portrait of the enigmatic, troubled millionaire Howard Hughes. They succeed by focusing on the triumph that preceded the tragedy and sustaining a deep sense of empathy and compassion for this misunderstood trail blazer.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes. Copyright © 2004 Miramax Films
Most young people know nothing about Hughes, and even for older folks, Hughes is mostly famous for being rich and, to put it bluntly, off his rocker. The image we have is of an unshaven, germophobic recluse, wearing tissue boxes on his feet and living in the private screening room of his mansion. For those of us who weren’t around during his heyday of the 1920s-1940s, The Aviator thrillingly rehabilitates his reputation, showing the brilliant young pilot and filmmaker who blazed a defiant trail through both Hollywood and the world of aviation. In short, we learn what made Hughes important and why his descent into mental illness made headlines.

I went into The Aviator with misgivings. Recent films by Scorsese, such as Gangs of New York left me cold, and I feared the brilliance of Raging Bull and Goodfellas was gone forever. The Aviator’s nearly three hour running time also worried me. But I can honestly say that the first hour of this film was as good as anything I’ve ever seen, including Citizen Kane, which it strongly resembles. If the rest of the film doesn’t sustain the heights reached by the first hour, it’s only because you don’t want to leave the joyous, devil-may-care verve of Hughes’ early life, for the ever-darkening later stages, when he begins losing his battle against mental illness.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes and Cate Blanchett as Katherine Hepburn. Copyright © 2004 Miramax Films

The film opens with a compelling, but disturbing scene of the young Howard being bathed by his mother, who is quizzing him on the dangers of the outside world—the germs he must guard against, and even the "Negroes" who live in the other part of town. Her final bit of advice, "Remember, you’re not safe," is a chilling foreshadowing of the paranoia and fear of germs that would unravel him later in life. We are left to wonder if she helped cause his future paranoia by planting these fears in him, or if her warnings just became incorporated into mental illnesses that were essentially inevitable.

From here, the film jumps to 1927, when the dashing young Howard is the talk of Hollywood, as he pours his inherited fortune into his air battle epic Hells Angels, romances starlets, including the young Katherine Hepburn (stunningly portrayed by Cate Blanchett), and builds an aviation empire by founding Hughes Aircraft and buying TWA airlines. These conquests portray a man with an almost giddy sense of optimism about the future, himself and the people around him. In the process, he pioneers the multi-camera film-shoot, designs scores of cutting edge aircrafts and sets several air speed records piloting his own experimental crafts.

But even at the height of his career, we begin to see the signs of phobias creeping in, subtle at first, but growing more and more ominous as Howard obsesses over cleanliness and the minute details of his life. It is ironic that the acute attention to detail that served him so well as a filmmaker and aircraft designer, would ultimately be the undoing of his personal life. What’s remarkable is that Hughes accomplished so much while battling mental illness—beginning at a fairly early age.

Alan Alda as Senator John Owen Brewster. Copyright © 2004 Miramax Films

The popular image of Hughes is of a self-indulgent, rich eccentric. The Aviator instead offers a portrait in courage that is both more inspiring and heart breaking. Near the end, when Hughes emerges from his self-imposed seclusion to face down an antagonistic senator at a congressional hearing, we see the last victory of a life that was, in many respects heroic. The moment is triumphant, and makes you wonder what more he could have done, had it not been for his illness. It also raises questions about our own attitudes about mental illness and our ability to be compassionate and understanding to those who suffer from it. Could we indeed be as caring and loyal as those who stuck with Hughes throughout his life?

Howard Hughes was no angel, and it’s doubtful he would make a good role model. But this film reveals a remarkable man, with a surprisingly strong character that encompassed deep loyalty, honesty, an innate sense of fairness and most of all courage.

Gregg Tubbs is a freelance writer living in Columbia, Md.

This review was developed by, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.

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