Crash and burn is a painfully apt metaphor for the life of Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) as told in Martin Scorseses THE AVIATOR. We even see two such events in the course of its almost three hours of running time. Unlike the tidier myth of Icarus, though, Hughes story is more than just genius meeting audacity for a final, fatal flight. Hughes had both by the truckload, planning big, risking bigger, and not letting anyone else’s lack of vision put a damper on his. But neither of those, as they would have been in a classical tragedy, was the fatal flaw that laid him low. The flaw here is more insidious than hubris and more inescapable. The film that recounts it is sprawling, ambitious, and visually dynamic, echoing the sweeping, mythic quality of its subject. This is a masterpiece.
It follows Hughes two passions, aviation and filmmaking, in both of which he pushed the edges of the envelope, shedding the extra wing of the bi-plane in order to make it fly faster and glomming onto the marketing possibilities of flying above the weather. On the cinematic front, he filled the screen with more violence than it had seen before in SCARFACE and more sizzle with Jane Russell’s assets in THE OUTLAW. The focus, though, is on his growing obsession, or rather, obsessive-compulsive disorder that eventually left him a recluse, trusting no one outside his close-knit inner circle, and living in mortal dread of the germs that he could never completely rid himself of.
DiCaprio has the boyish enthusiasm and the preternatural focus that fuel the mercurial Hughes. He also foreshadows with those very qualities the growing mental unbalance, the moments of absolute focus on blueprints giving way to being unable to take his eyes off a trash can after someone has tossed a soiled handkerchief in it. Its a complex performance where stubbornness, whether mortgaging his company to finish HELL’S ANGELS, or refusing to sell his controlling shares of TWA, is both calculated gamble and the height of insanity. Perhaps it is in those moments that the key to Hughes is glimpsed, if only briefly, with the one nurturing the other. The scenes of complete breakdown, oddly, are less effective. Played well, cinematically envisioned, they are somehow too obvious in contrast with the subtleties of what comes before and after. Hughes, unable to stop saying show me the blueprints is far more disturbing than a nude Hughes urinating into a milk bottle.
The other players are vivid but of necessity get short shrift, their purpose more to spotlight Hughes than to tell their own story. Alan Alda and Jude Law are superb, the former as a corrupt Senator in a pin-striped suit nipping at Hughes’ heels, the latter as Errol Flynn, boring Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett, formidably mannered and boldly intelligent) on her first date with Hughes at the Cocoanut Grove, and then starting a brawl with a neighboring table when the couple abruptly leave. Kate Beckinsale may not have the same smoky sensuality of Ava Gardner, but she has the right attitude and the sultry toughness that refuses to let Hughes buy her anything but dinner, and who stays his friend, if not his lover, even when he bugs her house, or one of the starlets he has under contract tries to run her down. It is Alec Baldwin, though, as Hughes’ nemesis at Pan Am, Juan Trippe, who has the best line of the film, uttering an expletive as he watches a supposedly incapacitated Hughes deliver a death blow, on television, to Trippe’s plans for domestic airspace domination. John C. Reilly, though,almost disappears into the scenery as long-time and long-suffering Hughes right-hand man Noah Dietrich, as does, paradoxically, Gwen Stefani as platinum-haired bombshell Jean Harlow.
DiCaprio may be the lead actor, acquitting himself more than admirably, but the visual panache is the star. The camera swoops and soars through the aerial sequences, manifesting the freefall exhilaration of pure flight. The two plane crashes are among the most hair-raising ever filmed in their detail and, perhaps inevitable, playing as metaphor for Hughes’ mental crash. Just as horrific, though, are the detailed examinations of the obsessive-compulsive disorder taking over Hughes’ life. The camera focusing on the knob on the inside of a men’s room door, looming, threatening, the flexing of DiCaprios hand filling the screen as it tries and fails to touch it, the struggle between reason and phobia on DiCaprio’s face, then a long shot of Hughes waiting patiently by that door until someone comes in so that he can make his escape.
The film’s opening scene offers a tantalizing clue about what may have triggered Hughes lifelong descent into madness. He is shown as a boy back in Houston, standing in a tub and being bathed by his mother. As she scrubs him, she recounts the terrors that await him in the world, the typhus, the cholera, the people who will cheat him. The script by John Logan uses that moment as the starting point for both film and personality, but not an explanation in full. That would be too facile for a film about someone with so many sharp-edged contradictions. It’s a much more satisfying experience, albeit almost voyeuristic, to leave as the subject of the film an enigma that could inspire loyalty in people who didnt want his money, envision the future, buck the Hollywood studio system when it was considered pure folly, and required exactly 12 peas on his plate at dinner.