An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

            “The Aviator” is an ambitious picture that often soars.  Director Martin Scorsese and his team had such a full story on their hands with the life of Howard Hughes that they took the only road open to them – narrow the time slot (20s, 30s, 40s), forget chronology (too much material), and try to catch the spirit of this strange man.  They have done it by painting the highlights of his life in bright colors and surreal imagery.  The long movie moves quickly with a crackling script by John Logan.   

            Known in his own time as an eccentric visionary, Hughes lived long enough to see his visions clouded and his eccentricities enlarged to full blown mental illness.  The filmmakers wisely concentrate on his outsized achievements and outrageous methods. 

            At 20, Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) inherited his father’s hugely successful Hughes Tool Company.   With a fortune that gave him freedom, he dove into the two glamour industries of the 1920s:  aviation and movies.  Pulling them together in one controlling hand, he made “Hell’s Angels,” amassing along the way the largest private air fleet in the world.  His profile was high.  He owned RKO and TWA, fought Pan Am for international air routes, and wore glamorous stars on his arm.   

            What is fascinating though, is the contradiction between the man who loved high profile glamour and the man, who was terrified of germs.   He refused to shake hands, washed his hands raw, and sank slowly into the obsessive/compulsive disorder that finally controlled him.  He made decisions on instinct and then watched them go sour or make history.  He was the first to build a passenger plane that could put people above rough air (the Constellation), the first to build a cargo plane and a spy plane, the first to fight the Breen censorship committee.  He was Hollywood’s off-screen leading man – billionaire, test pilot, producer, and escort. 

            Showing the acting ability that served him well before “Titanic” derailed him, Leonardo DiCaprio has ingested the Hughes brio.  Credit goes also to a game cast.  Ian Holm as Professor Fitz, John C. Reilly as Hughes’ COO, Kate Beckinsale as a willful Ava Gardner, Alec Baldwin as Juan Trippe, Jude Law as Errol Flynn, and outstandingly, Alan Alda as the corrupt Senator Owen Brewster of Maine.  Cate Blanchette evokes Katherine Hepburn through voice and manner; no one, after all, could look like her. It’s an odd impersonation that works.  Howard Hughes in his prime was bigger than life – just too much story for one movie. 

            Picking up steam as it moves along, the movie often has the feel of an expressionist painting.  The party scenes, the business deals, the money, the women, the sick precision – it all flies by and adds up to a fleeting impression of the man and the era.  It’s colorful, fast, and entertaining, and there is always the astonishment that Hughes was even more of a reckless daredevil than he is in the movie.


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