The Aviator


Posted to on December 18, 2004


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, 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 Detroit at the time were shot down by hidebound, reactionary enemies in the business class. At the time, critic Roger Ebert said that you get no sense of what made Tucker tick. He, like Scorsese's Howard Hughes, is seen from the outside. Ebert also said that it was hard to avoid the impression that Coppola saw himself in Preston Tucker, who was also a kind of genius thwarted by lesser mortals.


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 "America: What Went Wrong" and other critiques of American society. In other words, they are the perfect biographers for a subject like Howard Hughes.)


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 Hollywood he must have had to put up with.


In a pivotal scene, Hughes is invited out to the Connecticut estate of Hepburn's blueblood, liberal parents. At a dinner party there, they appear as repulsive as the Sean Penn marionette in this year's "Team America." Speaking down to Hughes, they spout slogan after slogan about the downtrodden poor. Before leaving in a huff, he tells them that they can't know anything about money because they were born into it. He, on the other hand, would have ostensibly worked for every penny he ever made. Since Howard Hughes was an heir to his father's fortune, this confrontation does not quite ring true.


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 Logan's past work includes "The Gladiator" and "The Last Samurai," such hopes would be misplaced. Ultimately the romance between the two characters does not come alive, because we really don't know who Hughes is. Logan is content to paint a rather opaque figure, who only is energized and demonstrative when behind the steering wheel of an airplane.


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 Europe in order to compete with Pan American airlines. Juan Trippe, Pan-Am's president, is played by Alec Baldwin as a smooth-talking, aristocratic Yankee against the rough-hewn but honest Howard Hughes. Trippe has made substantial campaign contributions to Brewster in an effort to line up his support against any challenges to Pan Am's monopolistic ambitions.


One has to wonder about the casting of Alan Alda and Alec Baldwin in these roles. Both are high-profile liberals in Hollywood. I doubt that Scorsese, Logan and DiCaprio sat down and made casting decisions based on this criterion, but nevertheless it serves the political subtext of the film willy-nilly. That subtext entails the clash of the risk-taking entrepreneur and the meddling forces of big government.


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 Europe during the war, hence evading submarine attacks. This supposedly vindicated Howard Hughes, whose idea for such a huge plane was derided by men with limited imaginations.


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 Atlantic by German submarines. In the summer of that year, he came up with a solution. A fleet of giant flying boats would guarantee the safe delivery of men and supplies to Europe. Long before Hughes entered the picture, newspapers were hailing the prospects of Kaiser's flying boats. The Philadelphia Inquirer referred to "Flying Freighters--The Ship of the Future Will Fly Over the Ocean if the Nation Accepts Henry Kaiser's Suggestion."


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 Hollywood lawyer and horse-racing enthusiast, who had represented Hughes in past dealings in the film industry. He knew nothing about aviation. It is no wonder that the Hercules only flew two years after the war was over, with men like this in charge. Hughes himself was hardly to be seen most days, preferring to spend his time in Las Vegas with showgirls.


(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 Hollywood. Bill Gay, one of many Mormons hired by Hughes to look after his affairs, said, "He felt that communism versus free enterprise was such an important issue in our time. [It was] one of the few issues in his life he felt that strongly about." (This is cited in Barlett and Steele.)


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 Mexico or anywhere else."


It is singularly disappointing that people like Martin Scorsese would commemorate such an enemy of freedom in the name of freedom.