Few men in history have succeeded in combining their genius and talent in distant and diverse fields, and among them, we must undoubtedly place the legendary Howard Hughes, the undisputed star of this 2004 movie, The Aviator.
Orphaned at a very young age and inheriting his family’s considerable wealth, this eccentric boy quickly became an aviation pioneer and a celebrated cinematographic producer.
Indeed, instead of squandering his money, living the high life, and buying fancy cars and houses, Hughes ventured into making the ambitious Hell’s Angels, an expensive war movie known for its spectacular aerial combat scenes.
A few years later would come to the even more famous Scarface, directed by the great Howard Hawks, a fictional biography of Al Capone that would later also inspire Brian De Palma‘s masterpiece of the same name starring Al Pacino.
At the same time, Hughes founded the Hughes Aircraft Company, where he would design some revolutionary aircraft such as the H-1 Racer and the giant H-4 Hercules, a colossal seaplane to transport troops across the Atlantic during World War II.
Although the project was eventually deemed too expensive, and the plane never went into mass production, it remains an outstanding example of the aeronautical engineering of the period.
Despite the many problems with his movies and engineering career, the real trouble begins when his airline challenges PanAm‘s dominance in transoceanic flights.
This will lead his rival Juan Trippe to try to obstruct him by any means, even involving Senator Ralph Owen Brewster, who will drag Hughes into a legal and political battle.
The senator accused Hughes of wasting government funds and failing to honor his contractual commitments in several public hearings before the Senate committee in 1947, from which, fortunately, our aviator emerged unharmed and more famous than ever.
Colorful nostalgia for a bygone era
Although Martin Scorsese is a well-known name in the cinematic world and The Aviator grossed over $200 million in 2004, this movie remains, for some reason, one of the least talked about among his fans.
Perhaps the shadow of the success of The Departed released a few years later, overshadowed the nostalgic appeal and importance of this biopic.
Scorsese had succeeded in capturing Howard Hughes‘ engineering genius and filmmaking passion with his usual style and mastery, transporting us to a time when aviation adventures were a symbol of challenge and courage.
A romance that is emphasized by some bizarre color choices that, in some moments, transform the look of the visuals almost as if it were one of Tim Burton‘s weird fantasies.
Scorsese emphasizes Hughes’ struggle not only for his airline but also against the censorship attempting to cut his movies and especially against his many phobias that often led him to isolate himself from others.
In this sense, John Logan writes a screenplay dense with historical events and characters that flows smoothly and easily for viewers.
Just the same author who captured the public’s imagination with Gore Verbinski’s fantastic cartoon western movie Rango, for example, equally here he narrates Hughes’ life fascinatingly and compellingly.
While acknowledging he was not a perfect or kind man in every respect, we cannot help but admire his achievements.
Hughes was a complex personality, driven by both ambition and his flaws, and we cannot deny that, at times, he evinced a mean and vindictive side.
However, this does not obscure his charm, especially toward women who initially found him irresistible and magnetic. Still, as time went on, he sadly became unbearable and difficult to handle.
The strange rules of the Oscars
Playing Howard Hughes, Leonardo DiCaprio delivers an extraordinary performance, perfectly conveying the character’s loneliness arising from his enormous wealth and eccentric behavior.
However, Hughes’ determination to fight for the aviation and cinema industries is also brilliantly expressed by the actor, who remains Oscar-less this time.
The collaboration between DiCaprio and Scorsese seems ill-fated regarding the coveted golden statuette. However, it spawned such magnificent movies as Gangs of New York, Shutter Island, and The Wolf of Wall Street, which audiences greatly appreciated.
The Aviator, however, did not go unnoticed on the famous movie’s red carpet in 2004 with an impressive 11 Oscar nominations, winning five, including one awarded to Cate Blanchett for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Katharine Hepburn.
Indeed the actress stands out over her colleagues in Hughes’ complicated love affairs, such as with Gwen Stefani as the shy Jean Harlow or the remarkable Kate Beckinsale as the aggressive and daring Ava Gardner.
The performances by the male cast are equally solid: John C. Reilly stars as Noah Dietrich, the finance director and businessman who assists and endures Hughes for nearly three decades, while Danny Huston plays Jack Frye, the future president of TWA.
Simply irresistible is Ian Holm as Professor Fitz, who accompanies Hughes on the amusing cloud hunt for his airplane movies.
Finally, it could not miss a substantial villain, so we have Alec Baldwin shining as the charismatic and ambiguous rival Juan Trippe, president of Pan American World Airways, with the obvious goal of making his airline prosper and thwarting Hughes’ business while recognizing as well his engineering talent.