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The Aviator (2004)

Some men dream the future. He built it.

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 170 minutes

US Certificate: PG-13 UK Certificate: 12a

As a boy, Howard Hughes had a dream: “When I grow up, I will fly planes, make movies, and be the richest man in the world”; and in 1925, he grabbed at the opportunity to realise it before he had even turned 21, taking control of his late father’s drill-bit business. Over the next two decades he ploughed the company’s resources into the air-battle epic “Hell’s Angels” and other box-office hits, as well as into pioneering designwork for military aviation and the acquisition of a commercial transatlantic airfleet. High-risk industrialist, womanising Hollywood playboy, record-breaking aviator, independent filmmaker, survivor of several serious air accidents, media-shy celebrity and obsessive-compulsive paranoiac, Hughes was cut too large almost for life itself, let alone for a single film – yet Martin Scorsese’s sprawling biopic ‘The Aviator’ tightly interweaves the different strands of his life into a highly compressed narrative that portrays not just the contradictions in the man himself (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), but in the American dream which he embodied.

Hughes made his last public appearance in 1958, and died (fittingly, on an airplane) in 1976, a deranged recluse so unrecognisable that medical tests were necessary to prove his identity. This well-known tragic end is omitted by ‘The Aviator’, which instead chronicles the more productive period of the mid-1920s to the 1940s – Hughes’ flights and filmmaking, his relationships with Hollywood stars Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale), and his victorious struggles against America’s Censors (over Jane Russell’s outlaw “mammaries”) and a corrupt Senator (Alan Alda) – but Hughes’ madness is nonetheless a constant presence right from the opening childhood scene, imbuing the film with a gravity that viewers are all too aware will eventually bring Hughes’ many meteoric successes crashing back down to earth.

It takes little imagination to see what attracted Scorsese to this project. For he is himself a great filmmaker, renowned like Hughes for his painstaking attention to detail and his many neuroses (including, ironically, a fear of flying). Scorsese points to this parallelism between himself and his subject both by recreating numerous sequences from Hughes’ films (and brilliantly aping the Technicolor spectrum of Hughes’ day), and by inflecting ‘The Aviator’ with references to films of his own – for the press photographers’ exploding flashbulbs evoke ‘Raging Bull’ (also a biopic about a man who is his own worst enemy), while Hughes’ (metaphorical) assertion “we’re in a streetfight” makes him seem like a natural descendant to the all too real streetfighter also played by DiCaprio in Scorsese’s previous ‘Gangs of New York’.

In ‘The Aviator’, as in Gangs of New York, Scorsese uses critical events from America’s past as a mirror on the present, foreshadowing not just the nation’s extraordinary progress, but also her more contemporary catastrophes. Gangs of New York ends with an ominous image of the Twin Towers rising from the ashes of New York’s streets, as though to suggest that America’s founding history of violent conflicts and appalling casualties is far from over – while ‘The Aviator’ ends with Hughes at last attaining the rights to a new international air route leading all the way, as Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin), president of rival Pan Am, so gravely puts it, “…to New York. Fuck!”. It is of course a moment of triumph in the modernisation of America – but by outlining a vision of large passenger planes able to fly freely into New York City, Scorsese again evokes the 9/11 nightmare, and binds the fates of his hero Hughes and his nation – both have their heads in the clouds while their feet are still in the dirt, and both are blessed with the powers of flight while doomed repeatedly to fall.

It's Got: A stellar cast, fastidious period detail, staggering production standards, a highly compressed narrative, a characters madness traced in a variety of scenes set in bathrooms, a vertiginous reconstruction of Hughes crash through the roofs of Beverly Hills suburbia, and a defiantly downbeat ending reminiscent of Scorseses 1970s heyday.

It Needs: A little more attention to character amidst all the beautifully shining surfaces.


In this stunning period biopic, Scorsese exposes the American dream to the law of gravity.