It's no surprise that in the long, storied and undeniably bizarre life of Howard Hughes, the first extended episode Martin Scorsese engages in The Aviator depicts the making of a film. What big-budget director wouldn't identify with Hughes' obsession to get his vision of World War I air battles on screen, or envy the nearly limitless resources Hughes drew upon while delaying production to await the proper cloud cover, then -- after talkies came in -- doubling his by cost re-shooting the whole thing for sound?
But Scorsese's own experiences with the cinematic vision thing aren't the only justification for this particular intro to the adult Hughes (played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who also starred in Scorsese's budget-ballooning Gangs of New York). His 1930 Hell's Angels let the then-boy tycoon indulge in both film and flying, two of the passions that would dominate his life. And in Scorsese's view, the production marked Hughes as a quintessential American: tragically heroic, a larger-than-life figure who realizes his dreams only to be annihilated by them.
But madness and a crystalline focus on one's desires mix in different proportions in Hughes than in Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta, Rupert Pupkin and Henry Hill, and on a much different scale. Hughes was born rich and ready to take on the world -- something he literally did at least once, with his record-setting 91-hour flight around the globe in 1938. And at nearly three hours, The Aviator is a compelling if exhaustingly long examination of an American life.
As seen by Scorsese and screenwriter John Logan, Hughes was largely a product of his relationships with women. The film opens with the sight of a preadolescent Hughes standing naked in his family home; lit as if by Rembrandt, he's bathed by his young mother, who warns him about the deadly diseases that swarm outside their Houston home. The scene's disturbing sexual overtones tug at your awareness throughout: Hughes' madness begins as an eccentric fastidiousness about what he eats and drinks (milk, from sealed bottles) and progresses to full-blown spasms of what we'd now call obsessive-compulsive disorder: furious washing of his hands, pathological fear of contamination, involuntary repetition of phrases, as though he's a stuck record.
Early on, none of this seems to much affect his relations with women. A celebrated playboy during Hollywood's golden age, Hughes counted as companions Harlow, Hepburn, Gardner and Rogers, among others. Kate Hepburn (played by Cate Blanchett), according to Aviator, was something of a soul mate and near to marrying him; Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) dumps Hughes but returns to mother him out of one of his self-imposed quarantines. He's also got a lifelong breast fixation, which leads to some comedy about airplane fuselage design and regarding his infamous Western The Outlaw, which introduced movie audiences to Jane Russell's Grand Tetons.
Yet while Hughes might have been a celebrated crazy, a canny businessman and a spendthrift on his movies -- even though it was reportedly James Whale who wrote and directed much of Hell's Angels, and Howard Hawks who directed what is credited to Hughes in other pictures -- Hughes' early adulthood, at least in The Aviator, is all about the flying. Scorsese's Hughes smashes air-speed records, pushes airplane design to new heights, pioneers commercial trans-Atlantic flights, and heroically -- and single-handedly -- prevents corrupt Pan Am honcho Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) and his pet U.S. Senator (Alan Alda) from monopolizing the latter market. (A real-life episode Scorsese curiously omits: Hughes' brilliantly odd apprenticeship to the air trade, under an assumed name, as a salaried co-pilot for American Airlines. Maybe it sounded too Catch Me If You Can.)
Hughes' yearning to soar finds a metaphor in his escapes from the surly bonds of cash; one of the narrative elements that often makes The Aviator feel its full 160-odd minutes is the repeated schema of "We're $14 million in the hole!" (voiced usually by Hughes' buttoned-up right-hand man, played by cinematic right-hand man John C. Reilly), followed by Howard calling for another mortgage against his massive holdings. Still, if you didn't know Hughes was a daredevil of the skies as well as of the counting-house, Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker will convince you with a gloriously gravity-defying montage sequence depicting the 1946 test flight of his XF-11 spy plane -- followed by the horrific crash that ended it, and nearly Hughes' life.
The Aviator concludes just after Hughes' lone flight of his giant white-elephant wooden plane, mockingly dubbed the Spruce Goose; dwarfed by his own creation, Hughes hunches in a lavatory, struggling to stop repeating "The way of the future." The still-boyish voice that's one of DiCaprio's limitations as an actor here turns into another asset in his well-wrought performance: Hughes at fortysomething can't escape the boy in him who is haunted by the future, by the specter of what feats of size and speed he might accomplish. In an earlier scene in which he's locked himself in a private screening room -- for days? weeks? -- Hughes serves as a human screen for one of his movies, his dreams of cinematic beauty become nightmares. He might snap in and out of his madness, but he can't escape the psychosis of being rich, American and incandescent with the possibilities of it all.