"Picture people cannot get enough of Howard Hughes -- no matter the nagging suggestion from factual accounts that there was not a lot there." So begins David Thomson's entry on Hughes in "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film," and it's a pretty good description also of "The Aviator," Martin Scorsese's three-hour movie entry on the same subject. Scorsese can't get enough of Hughes, and he never convinces us there's a lot there.
The movie is hugely entertaining in a very specific way. Its primary appeal is its speed: It rushes along, from scandal to air crash to movie romance to Senate hearing, each anecdote well realized but never tarried over. Sound at all familiar? Those are the characteristics of the film Pauline Kael called a "shallow masterpiece," another bio of an American dynamo. That was the story of Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles's "Citizen Kane," which appears to be something of a touchstone for Scorsese. You could call "The Aviator" a "shallow near-masterpiece."
Planes, dames and cinema reels: Leonardo DiCaprio embraces the many loves of the eccentric billionaire in "The Aviator."
Although it passes on Welles's multiple point-of-view technique, "The Aviator" revels in two other Wellesian conceits. The first, and least substantial, is a reliance on penny-dreadful Freudianism. Kane had his "Rosebud," Hughes his tin of soap. We will of course never know what ultimately broke Hughes's mind, but Scorsese hasn't thought deeply about it in any event. In his version, a vague mother-figure, forbidding as Agnes Moorhead in "Kane," makes young Howard fear the universe, filling him with a debilitating paranoia, symbolized by the childhood tin of soap he carries everywhere, even as an adult. In Scorsese's view, the man grows up fearless and aggressive, yet secretly fragile, convinced of forces conspiring to destroy him (they were, but not to the extent that he imagined); even in triumph, Scorsese shows us the specter of mental destruction haunting him.
Second, and more to the point, Scorsese captures Hughes's dynamism, exactly in the way that Welles captured the essence of Kane, his variation on William Randolph Hearst. In both movies, the heroic figure fills the screen, dominating, driving, forcing the action. Thus a secret law of cinema, as opposed to a public law of morality, is in play: In stories, we're drawn to the active character, who may or may not be the moral character. Hughes may have been ruthless, paranoid, vengeful, domineering, but he's great fun to watch in action from the safety of the other side of the screen.
In Leonardo DiCaprio, Scorsese has found a perfect vessel to express Hughes's abundant contradictions. His hair slicked back, sporting one of those '40s-style flyboy mustaches, DiCaprio looks enough like Hughes to pass the inevitable memory checks (something that destroys Kevin Spacey's upcoming spin as a lanky, blond 45-year-old Bobby Darin!). But it's more than a trick of appearance, it's also quite an astonishing performance: DiCaprio fills him with life. His Hughes is down-home Texas (the accent appears to be modeled on George W. Bush's) and he has a whip-crack mind for engineering. In fact, to him, everything is an engineering problem, from the heft of Jane Russell's breasts, which had to be contained in a specially designed fabric application for "The Outlaw," to the planes he flew at the edge of (and sometime beyond) controllability, to the political maneuverings in his fight, as owner of TWA, with Pan American for control of the nation's overseas air routes.
Only at the end and against great odds -- namely, his own mental demons -- does he find the strength to step outside the engineering construct and triumph, in a series of Senate hearings investigating his business practices, by speaking directly to the American people. Did it happen? Hmmm, probably not as the movie suggests, as it overplays a "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" card. Hughes apparently won his combat with Sen. Owen Brewster, Pan Am's designated Washington hit man, by selectively leaking documents to columnist Drew Pearson. In other words, Hughes didn't beat them by changing the game in Capraesque fashion, he beat them by beating them at the game.
But Scorsese loves Hughes the Legend, and the movie vividly deploys the three big toys that sum up Hughes's life: hot airplanes, mediocre movies and beautiful dames. It essentially stops in 1947, sparing us what Welles did not: the spectacle of a tragic decline. Though Scorsese chronicles enough of the earlier breakdowns to suggest the coming darkness, as well as creating eerie forebodings of it (some of them borrowed from "A Beautiful Mind," such as the appearance of characters, real to Hughes, that we realize might be fantasies).
As for the airplanes, it's the best aviation movie since "Pearl Harbor." Hughes inherited a fortune after the death of a father who'd invented a rock-cutting drill bit that became mandatory on all oil rigs, and the wealth from Hughes Tool continued to pour in over the years -- much like Charles Foster Kane's inherited silver mine. Hughes took that dough and looked for ways to make it grow -- ways that kept him out of the office. Aviation was the Silicon Valley of the '20s and '30s; it was the age of the Heroic Pilot and it attracted the smartest and the best, each trying to figure out a way to get a prop job over 400 miles an hour or to build a multi-engine comfortable enough and safe enough to haul passengers. Hughes, like a cowboy Bill Gates, played this game hard and well.
The other Silicon Valley of '30s America was Hollywood, where fortunes could be made or lost overnight, and Hughes had to try that as well. He actually had a distinguished producing career, at least for a while ("Scarface," "The Front Page"), which Scorsese ignores, focusing instead on Hughes's first giant picture, "Hell's Angels." That film combined all the toys: It's a mediocre movie about planes (which he learned to fly in order to shoot much of the aviation footage himself) starring a tough-talking Kansas City dame named Jean Harlow (played briefly by Gwen Stefani), then 18. He clearly had an eye for talent -- or maybe just breasts.
The planes, the dames and the movies continue to intertwine throughout the '30s. He set a speed record at 351 mph in a prop job that was the first iteration of the low-winged, streamlined monoplane that would knock the Messerschmitts and the Zeros from the sky. He set a global circumnavigation record. He crashed at least three times, and the most terrifying of those -- in some kind of high-altitude reconnaissance number that resembled a P-38 Lightning on steroids -- is re-created in staggering detail. The plane chose to fall from the sky in downtown Beverly Hills and while Hughes barely survived -- multiple broken bones and massive third-degree burns -- several on the ground didn't.
Meanwhile, the engineer is also in and out of love, bed, marriages and friendships with Hollywood's most fabulous women. Cate Blanchett, in buckteeth, her tresses dyed red as Rudolph's nose, makes a great Kate Hepburn. Again, it's that rare double: She looks a lot like Hepburn so we don't blink in annoyance at the conceit. At the same time she captures Hepburn's agile, ironic mind, her iron-maiden ways, her goofy rich-socialist family (a great scene pits the glowering, taciturn Howard against these raving, self-dramatizing dilettantes). Kate Beckinsale has less luck with Ava Gardner, because, though quite beautiful, she never looks enough like La Gardner to register as such. Or maybe it's that Gardner, huge in her day, hasn't lingered in the mind and so Beckinsale has nothing to register as. Her Ava just seems like a tough, smart, beautiful woman who helps Howard by stewarding him through one of his early crackups in time to face Alan Alda's unctuous Owen Brewster.
And then there's the movies. Of course the film sees in Hughes's struggle to complete "Hell's Angels" the microcosm of all his gifts and pathologies: his will, his courage, his engineering genius, his vision, his craziness, his taste for women with large breasts, his insistence on doing it his own way even at the risk of business and personal ruin, his gift for self-promotion and his absence of much to say that wasn't direct and empirical. But the movie also suggests the fluttery nature of his mind. He would lose interest in things and just more or less wander away. Hughes really disconnected from movies after "Jet Pilot" in 1957, and never made another one.
The movie climaxes -- this is a curious choice -- in Hughes's triumph before the Senate committee in 1947 over his seeming wartime profiteering and the scandal of the millions spent on his massive troop-carrying seaplane, cruelly nicknamed "The Spruce Goose," which flew only once and never got as high as Scorsese's computer graphics suggest. This is another devolution to genre: Scorsese morphs from "biopic" into "business picture," choosing to climax in the fight between Hughes's upstart TWA and old line Pan Am (headed by exec Juan Trippe, played greasily by Alec Baldwin).
Was this the best choice? Possibly not. It's hard in 2005 to invest emotionally in the conflict between two now-vanished corporate entities. Scorsese tries to finesse this by envisioning the antagonists as a little outsider (Hughes) vs. Ivy League old boy insider (Trippe), a populist fable that doesn't quite work with a figure as mythically wealthy, powerful and mysterious as Hughes. The ending of such an action-driven story in such an uninteresting development pretty much leaves you cold.
"The Aviator" is best regarded as a vehicle, not a drama. It flies low and hard, rattling the windows, ripping up a cloud of dust, maybe setting a speed record or two. Great glamorous fun, but it's moving so fast you don't notice some of the shortcuts and bad choices.
The Aviator (169 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for air-crash violence and sexual innuendo.