In Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, an advisor to big-time dreamer Howard Hughes asks, "You want the good news or the bad news?" Hughes replies, "The bad news, always." Hughes's life had plenty of highs—including many literal ones—but even more lows. The two decades of Hughes's life covered in The Aviator were as good as it got for the player who dabbled in aeronautics, show biz, and women, and Hollywood's most-revered working director goes all-out to give Howard Hughes the big-budget biopic treatment. Scorsese takes Hughes's life into a tailspin, then artfully bails out.
Working from a script by John Logan (The Last Samurai), Scorsese keeps a good handle on the turbulent material of Hughes's sprawling life. The mercurial mogul, played with the right mix of intensity and magnetism by Leonardo DiCaprio, ran roughshod through various industries. His family's wealth-making drill-bits revolutionized oil drilling, and enabled Hughes to fund his experiments in aviation technology and his quest to take Hollywood. While designing aircraft, Hughes produced and even directed films, including the infamous runaway production Hell's Angels. To the head-in-the-clouds tune "Stairway to Paradise," the lavish Cocoanut Grove nightclub serves as the pre-agoraphobic Hughes's stomping ground, where the ladies' man producer rubs elbows with the likes of MGM head Louis B. Mayer (Stanley DeSantis) and Errol Flynn (Jude Law).
Scorsese's runaway production gorgeously evokes the period between 1927 and 1947 and recreates with loving detail the ill-fated loves of Hughes' life, from the XF-11 to the so-called "Spruce Goose," from Katharine Hepburn (played magnificently by Cate Blanchett) to Ava Gardner (a no-nonsense Kate Beckinsale). Taking full, exhilarating advantage of the medium, Scorsese achieves a spectacular look, with production designer Dante Ferretti, costumer Sandy Powell, cinematographer Robert Richardson, and a digital palette helping him to turn back time (as usual, Scorsese is at least as interested in film history as real-life history; he apes old color processes right from the WB-logo get-go). Credit, too, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, for memorable sequences like the Hell's Angels premiere, where Hughes's stress fractures are symbolized by the flashbulbs cracking beneath his feet.
The two-hour-and-forty-six minute running time is remarkably fleet. Hughes's life had it all: invention, glamour, sex, explosive action, and madness. The Aviator may be mythmaking, blissfully ignorant of Hughes's most rapacious (and racist) impulses, but little that makes it into the amazing story is overtly falsified (Ava Gardner shows up seven years too early, but who's counting). It's an only-in-America story for the ages, and though the oft-pegged Warren Beatty outgrew the part during years of development hell, DiCaprio—wearing a piercing look—ably embodies Hughes's complexity. Hughes is treated with understandable reverence for his bold genius—castanets herald his conquistador moves—and a great deal of sympathy for his outrageous folly. With no-nonsense shorthand, Scorsese establishes Hughes's upbringing in a tableau painted with soft light; the boy Hughes submits to a bath and an admonishment from his germophobic mother: "You are not safe."
The adult Hughes slowly succumbs to worsening OCD, incessantly washing his hands and failing to overlook a piece of lint during a business meeting. Logan also sides with Hughes in a hilarious meet-the-parents sequence at the Hepburn home, a liberal den of fast-flying non-sequitur delivered at a Howard Hawks pace. Eventually, Hughes and Hepburn ("Aren't we a fine pair of misfits?", she quips) commiserate about the harsh light of fame. Still, Hughes remains an anti-heroic figure: bold but reckless; charming but cold; targeted by his powerful peers, but his own worst enemy. Those unfamiliar with Hughes's life will be broadsided by a devastating turning point, only one in a constant series of reversals which include the nervous breakdown that prefigured the world-beating womanizer's eventual submission to psychotic isolation in locked Las Vegas hotel suites.
For his climax, Logan chooses the 1947 Senate hearings which would, in a way, be Hughes's last hurrah. As chaired by Ralph Owen Brewster (Alan Alda, at full unction) and sponsored by Pan Am head-honcho Juan Trippe (a rapacious Alec Baldwin), the Senate War Investigating Committee muckraked Hughes's persuasive "softening-up" parties for government officials, but ultimately provided Hughes an opportunity to do what he did best: raise hell. Scorsese seems to be having the time of his life, staging a dazzling dogfight on the aerial "set" of Hell's Angels, directing "Kate Hepburn," and exhuming vintage Hollywood Bacchanalia. He soars with Hughes's curvaceous planes, and slums with his dirty white sneakers. Scorsese may wield Hollywood weapons to hew his way through history, but the Hughes of film's end is a battered, scarred, and babbling Cassandra, which qualifies The Aviator as an admirably eccentric movie about an eccentric man.