There’s no overestimating the contributions Martin Scorsese has made to American cinephilia. More than just a moviemaker, he has been a restless, tireless gadfly nagging the memory-loss culture around him to hold onto the past. Italian neo-realism, Michael Powell, film preservation, John Cassavetes, the blues, the reputations of studio auteurs like William Wellman and Sam Fuller—he devotes so much celluloid and interview time to his various causes it’s a wonder he can find the time to make his own films. Now, Scorsese the director finally has an opportunity to cannonball into the old Hollywood he knows so well; hard as it is to believe, The Aviator is the first non-documentary feature in the man’s canon to serenade the act of making cinema.
Or at least in part—however much a Hollywood gossip page ubiquity, Howard Hughes was hardly a vital Hollywood producer (ruled by erratic and exploitative instincts), and can barely qualify as a director. (His two credits, 1930’s Hell’s Angels and 1943’s The Outlaw, are woeful and sensationalistic claptrap.) Hughes is more accurately remembered as a half-baked engineer, an irresponsible pilot, an underhanded billionaire capitalist, and most spectacularly, a world-class neurotic whose famous descent into unwashed, paranoid junkie madness in the years before his death assured his notoriety after many other late industrialists had faded from the country’s consciousness.
The Aviator, working with a script by John Logan (Gladiator, The Last Samurai), skims the surface, of course. Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a paradigmatic brash young powermonger, spitting out orders, puzzling his minions with his mania for details, courting starlets. As is de rigueur for its genre, the movie’s narrative feels like a long string of boxcars—incidents from the Hughes biography are dutifully re-enacted: meeting Katharine Hepburn, conceiving of the Spruce Goose, crashing the XF-11, “discovering” the 15-year-old Faith Domergue, defending himself against accusations of war profiteering. Meanwhile, the parlor-game-casting cameos demonstrate the futility of reincarnating yesteryear’s icons by way of today’s movie stars (holy Toledo, Kate Beckinsale is no Ava Gardner). Scorsese has an Oktoberfest with the period ambience, as he did in New York, New York, orchestrating busy crowds, swooping his camera through the Tinseltown chintz, and staging frantic overlapping patter across dinner tables like Howard Hawks eagerly returned from the grave.
But where’s Hughes? In the public bathroom, frozen in fear of the doorknob he must turn in order to exit. Given the amount of time devoted to depicting if not understanding Hughes’s pathologies, Scorsese may have made the first epic portrait of OCD. Controlled by his cleanliness compulsions and neat-freak-hood (when Jude Law’s Errol Flynn steals a single pea off Hughes’s plate, it’s enough to scotch the meal), our semi-hero is something of a study in self-immolating, verminophobic frustration. At times, the movie’s title seems ironic—The Hand Washer might be more to the point. When the FBI ransacks his home at the backroom behest of competitor-Pan Am prez Juan Trippe (a suave Alec Baldwin), Hughes squeals in horror, “They’re touchin’ things!” How exactly Hughes manages to sleep with—exchange fluids with—so many women while he can scarcely tolerate shaking hands is a mystery the movie doesn’t try to solve, but his allure as the subject of a nearly three-hour examination is evasive. Certainly, wealth, womanizing, neuroses, and larceny hardly make for a distinguished profile in Hollywood. (The post-crash addiction to morphine is elided altogether.) Unaccountably, Hughes’s 1938 global circumnavigation, cutting Lindbergh’s 11-year-old New York-to-Paris record in half, is summed up in a newsreel.
Scorsese gets down to it with the air action, and if the Hell’s Angels sequences and the searing Beverly Hills smash-up of the XF-11 are the film’s fiery peaks, it may be because there’s a scent of sulfurous, Scorsese-ite danger in the otherwise well-regulated air. (It’s hard not to wonder who else was hurt or killed in that crash, but their names are apparently lost to or bought out of history.) The omnipresence of digital unreality provides another layer of safety and homogeneity. Still, DiCaprio is The Aviator‘s pivotal quantity—that is, if you buy him as a master of the universe-man of action, bedeviled by impulses. But the conscious contrast between today’s baby-faced, teen-voiced, toddler-men movie actors and the golden age’s grown-ups is unavoidable, and though DiCaprio is the same age here as Hughes was in 1934, he may not be convincing as a 30-year-old until he’s 50. When Hughes is swapping repartee with Hepburn (Cate Blanchett, who nails the vibe stunningly) during a Bringing Up Baby-ish nine rounds, it plays as if she’s interviewing him for an internship.
No small obsessive himself, Scorsese dares to limn Hughes’s midlife breakdown—holing up in his private screening room naked and unshaven, filling hundreds of empty milk bottles with piss—in repetitive enough terms to try the uncompulsive’s patience. Similarly afflicted viewers, however, may have shivers of empathy, just as ex-cokeheads sweated through the final act of GoodFellas. But the thorough dissolution of the ’60s and ’70s is only hinted at, a tactful strategy that asks us to provide The Aviator with its gruesome denouement. Instead, Hughes’s temporary self-collection and defiant grandstand before slimy Senate goldbricker Owen Brewster (Alan Alda) serve as the only conceivable triumph a screenwriter could locate in the man’s messy, ethically crippled life. The Aviator could’ve been a Raging Bull brother film, given that masterpiece’s crystalline purity of purpose and humiliated courage. But it brakes far short.