The Aviator – Flying high

news: The Aviator - Flying high

THE LIFE of playboy aviator, Howard Hughes, takes off, thanks to a mesmerising performance from Leonardo DiCaprio and a return to form for director Martin Scorsese as the story of one of the greatest American mavericks is recreated in The Aviator.

The legacy of Howard Hughes – an obsessive-compulsive who died in 1976 as an eccentric recluse – has, over time, shadowed the fact that he was actually also a record-breaking pilot, an inspired industrialist and an important player in the golden age of Hollywood. Scorsese’s film sets out to re-tell Hughes’s story and succeeds admirably, despite some inevitable superficiality.

Only lingering on Hughes’s childhood briefly to cast light on his obsession with cleanliness, Scorsese skilfully sketches the character of the man before cutting to 1927 with Leonardo DiCaprio as the adult Hughes. The eccentric, Texan playboy inherits a fortune from his father’s drill-bit business and gets involved in Hollywood, making Hell’s Angels before focusing on his real passions of women and planes.

Hollywood in the 30s and 40s is eloquently recreated by Scorsese, with Hughes frequenting the Coconut Grove nightclub and buzzing over the city in his planes. The aircraft-obsessed mogul enjoyed a high-flying personal life, dating the likes of Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow and Bette Davis. The spikily intelligent Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) is the love of his life, while Kate Beckinsale plays another of his partners, Ava Gardner, brilliantly.

Intertwined with his love life and mental health issues, Scorsese tells the story of Hughes’s aviation work. His obsession with, and knowledge about, aeronautics actually provides the film’s narrative backbone. Together with his speed records, Hughes poured his energy into the war effort as well as commercial aviation. Scorsese also depicts his XF-11 spy plane project, which culminates in a spectacular crash in Beverley Hills, and his most notorious endeavour, the giant Hercules transport, aka the ‘Spruce Goose’. Hughes’s determination to get the Spruce Goose (an oversized expression of his ego and idealism) airborne is made into the movie’s dramatic climax and is strangely moving. Hughes also bought TWA, vowing to reshape it, which brought down the ire of Juan Trippe (Baldwin) who, together with Senator Owen Brewster (Alda), pour vast resources into digging the dirt on the millionaire in an attempt to topple his empire.

As well as managing to create a strong, multi-strain narrative out of 20 years in the jumbled, diverse life of Hughes, the film takes you on a trip to the golden age of Hollywood, is technically interesting, is a compelling political drama and is tied together with an excellent cast of stars, all adding up to Scorsese’s best film in years.

Arguably not that deep even with its flaws, this is an entertaining film. With Hughes’s dirt phobia, fear of crowds, aviation triumphs and his weakness for Hollywood’s leading ladies, Scorsese puts the disappointment of Gangs of New York behind him and breathes life into this complex industrialist.

Hughes was such a larger-than-life character that he needed a director with larger-than-life skills to capture his spirit – and Scorsese is well up to the task.