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Despite Screenwriter John Logan and Director Martin Scorsese's best intentions, "The Aviator" is very much like the "Spruce Goose" of the film's climax: a lumbering, ill-conceived mess. Since they apparently didn't understand the true story of the white elephant seaplane that is represented as a soaring engineering achievement, it should come as no surprise that they would get nearly everything else wrong about Howard Hughes. Not only do they truncate the biography of this paradigm of American capitalism, leaving out the tawdry details of his dealings with the CIA and his various corporate crimes throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s; they also airbrush and prettify his earlier life to the point where it amounts to a lie.
The idea for this biopic came from Leonard DiCaprio, who plays Howard Hughes. Despite having progressive politics, especially on ecology (see http://www.leonardodicaprio.org/), he was unwilling to see Hughes in his proper historical context. DiCaprio was only interested in the man's speed fixation, his desire for privacy and his psychological quirks. Furthermore, John Logan turns Hughes into a kind of a libertarian hero after the fashion of Ayn Rand.
Despite his willingness to expose all the personal tics and foibles of this very odd subspecies of the American bourgeoisie, it is obvious that Logan and everybody else associated with this project want the audience to cheer for Howard Hughes at the end of this film. We have come a very long way from the days of "Citizen Kane."
If anything, Scorsese seems intent on making the same kind
of film that another cutting-edge Italian-American director made a while back.
Francis Ford Coppola's 1998 "Tucker" is a biopic
of Preston Tucker, an auto manufacturer whose visionary plans for a car with
safety belts and other features unheard of in
With Howard Hughes, the parallels are even more obvious since his career began as a film-maker. Referring to Hughes's "Hell's Angels," a film about WWI aviators, Scorsese told the Telegraph: "He was a cocky guy and he bucked the system in terms of independent film…" In other words, he was a predecessor.
"The Aviator" begins with the making of this film. It is a fairly accurate in terms of showing the young Howard Hughes's overweening ambitions to make the ultimate film about air war. He is seen as the ultimate risk-taker who proves his detractors wrong, especially Noah Dietrich (John C. Reilly), who he had hired to run Hughes Tool. Dietrich warns him that mounting expenses might bankrupt the company his father founded and which was the source of his unlimited wealth. Scorsese depicts the film's premiere as a triumph of the plucky young producer/director. What the film covers up is the fact that "Hell's Angels" actually lost $1.5 million, an immense sum in 1930.
Nor does the film dramatize the death of mechanic Phil Jones, who was strapped to a spinning plane and instructed to operate smoke pots to give the impression of a burning plane. Pilots working in the film warned that this was too dangerous. They were correct. Jones missed a cue to parachute from the spinning plane and fell to his death in a plowed field. Hughes was all to willing to take risks, but at other peoples' expense apparently.
(The account of Jones's death and other factual corrections
in this review are drawn from Donald L. Barlett and
James B. Steele's "Howard Hughes: His Life and Madness." Bartlett and
Steele might also be known to you as the authors of "
True to biopic traditions, "The Aviator" dwells on Hughes's romances with movie stars like Katherine Hepburn and Ava Gardner. Hepburn is played by Cate Blanchett in one of the most ill-conceived performances in recent film history. Anybody who has seen Hepburn in film will be startled by Blanchett's braying and repellent version of the actress, which evokes Martin Short's impersonation of her on the old Saturday Night Live more than anything else.
It serves to establish a contrast between the crude but
honest Hughes character and the liberal phonies in
In a pivotal scene, Hughes is invited out to the
All in all, the dialog between Hughes and Hepburn's family is a lost opportunity. A more gifted
screenwriter would have drawn a more nuanced
contrast, but since
The dramatic heart of the movie involves a confrontation
between Hughes and Maine Senator Owen Brewster, who was conducting an
investigation into Hughes Aircraft and war profiteering in 1947. Brewster,
played by Alan Alda, serves as the film's villain. We
discover that Brewer's main motivation is to thwart Hughes's ambition to fly
his TWA airliners to
One has to wonder about the casting of Alan Alda and Alec Baldwin in these roles. Both are high-profile
This is an absurd construction since Howard Hughes's rise to the richest man in the world in 1966 was marked all along the line by exactly the same kinds of influence-peddling. He was the ultimate insider who lavished huge campaign contributions on the likes of Richard Nixon in exchange for favors for his various corporations. No wonder the makers of "The Aviator" decided to end their story in the late 1940s. The truth about Howard Hughes's later career was far too inconvenient.
The film concludes with DiCaprio
at the helm of the Hercules, an immense wooden seaplane that was intended to
carry war material to
What the film fails to establish is that the idea for the
Hercules (leaving aside its ultimate viability) came from ship-builder Henry
Kaiser rather than Hughes. In 1942, Kaiser was dismayed that hundreds of ships
were being sunk in the
When Kaiser approached Hughes in August of 1942 with the idea, he discovered the younger man to be frail and exhausted. Hughes told the effusive Kaiser, "I am very tired. I haven't had any sleep... Besides, you're crazy." After a couple of days, Kaiser was able to cajole Hughes into accepting his proposal. Perhaps Scorsese should have made a movie about Henry J. Kaiser instead.
Kaiser's trust in Howard Hughes was misplaced. In 1942,
Hughes Aircraft was little more than a boutique for bringing one or another of
its president's hobbyhorses to fruition, but not under the kinds of pressure
other companies faced--especially during wartime. It employed only a few
hundred people and was run by cronies of Howard Hughes. Neil S. McCarthy, who
was in charge of the company, was a
(Hughes Aircraft eventually turned into a powerhouse by supplying high-technology communications and missiles to the Air Force in the 1950s. At the time, the company was under the leadership of much more qualified people. Hughes had evidently learned from his mistakes.)
If the creators of the "The Aviator" had really immersed themselves in Howard Hughes's biography, it is surprising that they did not abandon this project at the outset, especially Martin Scorsese who is supposedly fiercely committed to the independence of film-making.
In the early 1950s, Hughes had gotten involved in the film industry once again. As head of RKO, he was turning out pure schlock like his earlier work. Yet despite the inferior quality of films like the 1943 "The Outlaw," he would appear at first blush to be strongly protective of artistic freedom. A key scene in "The Aviators" depicts Hughes standing up to the censors over his right to show Jane Russell's cleavage in this forgettable film.
Unfortunately, Hughes did not believe that leftists should
enjoy the same kinds of freedoms. In 1951, just as the witch-hunt was gathering
steam, Hughes fired Paul Jarrico who was hired to
write the screenplay for "The Las Vegas Story," an RKO film. Jarrico had been subpoenaed by HUAC to testify about
Communist subversion in
Not satisfied with firing Jarrico, Hughes next went after Charlie Chaplin. In 1953, RKO decided that they would ban "Limelight" after HUAC and the American Legion put pressure on movie theaters. In the case of RKO, this was like trying to break down a wide-open door.
Shortly after his triumph in ensuring a smaller audience for Chaplin's first movie in 5 years, Hughes and other red-baiters ganged up on "Salt of the Earth," a movie about New Mexico strikers made by Jarrico, Herbert J. Biberman and other blacklistees. In a letter to Representative Donald Jackson, Hughes solidarized himself with the film's banning and suggested a check-list for weeding out such subversive films in the future:
"[to] prevent this motion picture from being completed and spread all over the world as a representative product of the United States, then the industry . . . needs only to do the following:
"Be alert to the situation.
"Investigate thoroughly each applicant for the use of services or equipment.
"Refuse to assist the Bibermans and Jarricos in the making of this picture.
"Be on guard against work submitted by dummy corporations or third parties.
"Appeal to the Congress and the State Department to act
immediately to prevent the export of this film to
It is singularly disappointing that people like Martin Scorsese would commemorate such an enemy of freedom in the name of freedom.