The Aviator (2004)

Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenwriter: John Logan
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, John C. Reilly, Kate Beckinsale, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, Danny Huston, Matt Ross
Nominations: Picture, Director – Martin Scorsese, Actor – Leonardo DiCaprio, Supporting Actor – Alan Alda, Supporting Actress – Cate Blanchett, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Art Direction, Costume Design, Sound Mixing
Wins: Supporting Actress – Cate Blanchett, Cinematography, Editing, Art Direction, Costume Design

The confluence of genius and madness occurs often in film.  Examining the extremes of the human mind makes for interesting characters who stay with us long after their films have ended.  We have questions about which part inspires the other.  Does it take a little crazy to change the world?  Does thinking beyond the scope of current possibilities lead one to eccentric behavior?  There’s probably no way to know for certain, but that helps keep us engaged as our protagonist descends from the greatest triumphs to the most devastating losses.

For someone like Howard Hughes, who was only known by three or four generations as a reclusive madman, it’s important to humanize him before we follow him on his journey.  Sure, there’s going to be some difficulty in empathizing with a rich 22-year-old guy used to getting what he wants as he spends millions of dollars making a movie for his own ego-driven reasons, but somehow we do.  (Then again, it helps to have Leonardo DiCaprio portraying said guy.)  But even as Howard comes across as arrogant and selfish, we can appreciate his drive and ambition.  Whether rich or not, this is man who has big ideas and a desire to reach higher than those around him; having money really helps in that regard.

But money can’t buy everything.  Stable mental health, for example, requires work, especially if one has some issues to begin with.  How much of Howard’s eccentricities come from his mother’s paranoia versus being born with them is debatable, but as is often the case, how something came to be is less interesting than how someone deals with it.  What we witness throughout the film is a man possessed when he has control and can maintain his power in a given situation; however, when stressed, he loses composure and falls victim to his neuroses.  The major descent we see of Howard is a culmination of losing the contract for the Hercules, having TWA’s planes grounded, recovering from the XF-11 crash, and potentially getting ruined financially and personally by Senator Owen Brewster’s (via Juan Trippe and Pan Am) airline bill, which would give Pan Am a complete monopoly of the United States’ international air travel.  Brewster, aware of Howard’s struggles, expects a broken man to attend the senate hearings, but Howard has an ace up his sleeve, which makes his ability to stand up to Brewster and his antagonism even more admirable.

What makes The Aviator a fantastic film has so much to do with DiCaprio’s performance.  There’s no argument that the movie is a technical marvel with its recreation of Golden Age Hollywood and inventive cinematography that replicates the color film stock of the time periods of the scenes, but there’s an incredible nuance to what DiCaprio brings to the character.  The vocal tics, the physical tics, the self-awareness of those tics…  Howard is a tragic character who becomes more and more human in every scene because of the subtle choices DiCaprio makes.  That’s not to say the movie wouldn’t work without another actor, but there’s a gravitas and power that DiCaprio brings to the screen few actors can emulate. 

The Aviator has been a favorite since I first saw it in 2004, and it was really a joy to revisit it.  It’s a prime example of topnotch filmmaking that celebrates Hollywood, America, and innovation, and it’s well worth the time to watch it.

The way of the future… the way of the future… the way of the future…

Howard Hughes, The Aviator