The long fall of 'The Aviator'

When the rest of Martin Scorsese's long-awaited, 169-minute Howard Hughes biopic "The Aviator" has been forgotten - and much of it will be - there shall remain the sun-kissed, calamitous test flight of the XF-11 spy plane. High above World War II-era Southern California, where smog is not yet known and oranges and motion pictures blossom with happy abandon, the boyish multimillionaire tycoon (Leonardo DiCaprio), his brow vertically creased in concentration, begs a moment's indulgence to extend his record-breaking solo before bringing his new creation home. A nanosecond later, something has gone wrong. The sleek plane has begun to fall. Not like a stone, but answering to the implacable pull of gravity all the same. Los Angeles is spread below, oblivious to Hughes' presence; Los Angeles, and particularly the white walls and orange-red roof tiles of Beverly Hills; Lotusland at peace, and the war far away. "I can make it to the hangar," Hughes proposes, and Hughes' proposing has so often made it so. He can't make it to the hangar. The roof tiles are closer now, and still it's not a matter of falling; Hughes' trajectory remains somehow parallel to the world where other people do their living. Crashes aren't like this. This won't be a crash. It's now a matter of one roof, one house, pulling closer. And as some anonymous California man selects a necktie from the drawer and his wife completes a mental list, perhaps, of what she needs from that newfangled whaddayacallum supermarket, Howard Hughes' plane begins to walk on the roof. Tiles splinter, the roofing underneath opens like a zipper, a wheel spins for purchase as it twirls across the ceiling of a room and just past a householder's skull. The crease on Hughes' face is deeper still: greater concentration, as though he might will his way out of this, but still no terror and nothing remotely resembling it; a technical problem to be fixed. Wing and wall tear at each other, the plane lurches into a careen, Hughes is visibly, crisply at the center of what suddenly seems like half a mile of whirling chaos. Smoke, fire, melting plexiglas; and through the smoke, down an infinite, still-calm street, an unknown man running to the rescue as if floating in a dream.

Which covers maybe a tenth of the detail Martin Scorsese, his ace cinematographer Robert Richardson, editor Thelma Schoonmaker and untold armies of special-effects people have vividly imagined for this moment of eternity. As Hughes was himself, it is like nothing anyone has seen before.

So yes, the people who persist in thinking of Scorsese as America's greatest living filmmaker will find shards of brilliance in "The Aviator" to support the claim. Others may come closer to asking aloud a question that has been forming for the past decade and more: how many years can someone continue to rate that accolade without making a good movie?

Scorsese didn't initiate "The Aviator"; originally it was to have been the next film for director Michael Mann, who decided that after "The Insider" and "Ali" he shouldn't do another biopic in a row. Mann went on instead to do "Collateral," the most breathlessly sustained directorial triumph of the year (till, perhaps, a certain Clint Eastwood movie that will arrive here a week into 2005). Scorsese ... well, he has made what certainly seems in many respects an identifiably Scorsesean study of another demon-driven, fiercely unknowable American (cf. "Taxi Driver"'s Travis Bickle and "Raging Bull"'s Jake LaMotta) who will always be alone, in or out of a crowd, and never know peace.

Howard Hughes was an archetypal American original, the obsessive, visionary, eccentric, epic-risk-taking, Melvillean multimillionaire who inherited wealth in his teens and set about conquering as-yet-unknown worlds. Looked back at from early in the 21st century, Hughes is best "known" for having ended his life in decades of cloistered madness and Gothic grotesquerie one would not wish on one's worst enemy. That protracted, terrible descent is strongly anticipated but not depicted in Scorsese's film, which ends nearly 30 years before Hughes himself did. Nor is the film exhaustively inclusive, or definitive, about the not-quite-two-decades that it does cover, from the 1928 onset of production on Hughes' World War I movie "Hell's Angels" to the brief flight of his wooden Leviathan the "Spruce Goose" in 1947.

It's a safe bet that "The Aviator" stands its best chance of being enjoyed by viewers who know least about Howard Hughes' life, achievements and involvements. They will pick up only bits and pieces here. For one thing, they will have no reason to guess that the aviator's relationship to the movie business was longer and more continuous than the three films cited in "The Aviator" would suggest: the flying movie "Hell's Angels," with its skies full of biplanes swarming one another like crazed wasps; "Scarface," a classic gangster picture of Promethean fury (which actually rates only a glimpsed one-sheet), directed by Howard Hawks; and "The Outlaw," a dementedly Freudian Western best remembered for the prominence accorded leading lady Jane Russell's breastworks. The first and third were the only films Hughes personally directed (he took "The Outlaw" away from Hawks when Hawks' back was turned - literally), and they figure in "The Aviator" chiefly for coinciding with others of Hughes' interests. As an independently wealthy aviation pioneer, he had both the professional orientation and the wherewithal to conceive and bankroll a spectacular air-war movie; as an engineer and a milk-addicted breast fetishist, he had both the technical expertise and the cue for passion to design a cantilevered brassiere to show off "the two big reasons" that couldn't miss making "The Outlaw" a hit (but did).

There is no guessing from the evidence here (though surely Scorsese the lifelong movie fan and late-blooming film historian must have yearned to get into it) that over the years Hughes partnered with or had working for him such estimable directors as Hawks, Lewis Milestone, Preston Sturges, Max Ophuls, Josef von Sternberg, Nicholas Ray and Fritz Lang; that he produced the first film version of the seminal buddy-buddy newspaper story "The Front Page" and decisively interfered with a great movie in which he had no official part, Hawks' classic Western "Red River"; and that he in fact owned and (ruinously) operated a major studio, RKO Radio, from around the time "The Aviator" ends till shortly before the studio itself closed down.

The attention "The Aviator" pays to the film world establishes two things: Hughes was a Hollywood outsider, only begrudgingly tolerated by fellow moguls such as MGM's Louis B. Mayer; and like a lot of those guys, he used his power to get close to a goodly number of stunningly beautiful women. (Beautiful men, too, according to some sources, but Jude Law's ridiculous cameo as a nightclub-brawling Errol Flynn hints at none of that.) The one people today are most surprised to learn about was Katharine Hepburn, entertainingly and persuasively incarnated here by another great Cate, Blanchett; Hughes gets her into his bed by giving the Bryn Mawr tomboy the chance to just miss flying into a mountain. A far greater talent than he, she was his equal in eccentricity, and the half-hour or so of the film dominated by their relationship is its most satisfying - but finally disappointing - stretch. Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) was another conquest, but she had a string of equally charismatic suitors and remained huskily independent of Hughes' insatiable need to control. The film doesn't extend into the years when he began trying to create or appropriate glamour stars (Faith Domergue puts in a brief appearance) and married one (Terry Moore), only to keep her shut away from the world and himself.

Yet in an eerie fashion that is also dismayingly Scorsesean, for all its attention to glamour and desirability "The Aviator" has no sex in it. (The erotic high-water mark of Scorsesean cinema is Daniel Day-Lewis paying court to Michelle Pfeiffer's wrist in the heartbreakingly chaste and woefully underappreciated "Age of Innocence.") Although the rampant absurdities of "The Outlaw" are briefly indexed, there's no suggestion that "Hell's Angels," which made a star of Jean Harlow, exudes a musky air of rut you can smell (and Gwen Stefani's garish, missed-by-a-mile Harlow impersonation at the "Hell's Angels" preview is an all-star embarrassment).

Leonardo DiCaprio, who is credited as one of the producers of "The Aviator" and by all accounts deserves to be, limns a Hughes portrait that is braver and more "interesting" than it is truly compelling or even sad. He gets the eternal boy-man's sometimes clueless cockiness just right, and his multi-nuanced rendering of Hughes' compulsive, deranged mantras is awesome at times. But the catch-all reading of Hughes' fear of intimacy and contamination - proposed in a theme-statement prologue of the preteen Howard being bathed and instructed by his mother - is a "Rosebud" too reductive to achieve resonance, and it leaves Hughes, and the film about him, locked in the amber of glib "understanding."

It also doesn't help that, apart from the divine Blanchett/Hepburn and Beckinsale's game but fruitless stab at catching Gardner's gutsy tenderness, DiCaprio's Hughes doesn't really have anyone to share the screen with. John C. Reilly, one of our finest character actors, has little to do as Hughes' right-hand man Noah Dietrich; Danny Huston gets only to wear a rakishly '40s fedora and smile his warm, enigmatic smile as an amiable executive of one of Hughes' airlines. Two juicy nemeses loom promisingly - Alec Baldwin as Hughes' PanAm rival Juan Trippe and Alan Alda as a brittle U.S. Senator trying to bring Hughes down in a HUAC-style witch hunt - but they come off as imported specialty acts on day contracts, not integral parts of Hughes' twisted psychodrama. Scorsese's Hughes is a man alone in ways that do not make for satisfying movie-watching.

Never doubt that Scorsese had his sights set on big game. Hughes is more than big enough on his own recognizance, but in his climactic testimony before Alda's Senate committee, the part in DiCaprio's hair and his looking out from under the brows of Zeus ineluctably call up the shade of that other exemplary, lost-boy American tycoon, Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. Surely Scorsese hoped that the jagged kaleidoscope of "The Aviator"'s hurtling imagery and narrative would catch a grandeur and mystery comparable to that of Welles' most American of masterpieces. But his film dies alone.[[In-content Ad]]