The Aviator (2004) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

The opening act of The Aviator shows Howard Hughes (Leo DiCaprio) making the movie Hell's Angels. He has determined that, no matter what it takes, dammit, the film on screen will be precisely what he envisions, no matter how much he has to spend or how long it will take, dammit. When the speed of the aircraft cannot be captured accurately on film because the planes are moving against a clear sky, he hires a professor of meteorology to give him weather. He needs clouds for the illusion of speed. "Get me clouds. Just get it done and I don't care what it costs, dammit." His own film is finally finished after years of tribulation, but before it can be released as a silent film, Hughes catches a screening of The Jazz Singer, the first sound film. He immediately sees that the handwriting is on the wall for silent films, and resolves to re-shoot his entire film with sound, no matter how long it takes, and no matter how much it costs, dammit. He is so obsessed with getting every camera angle and every technical aspect of the film absolutely perfect, that he never for one instant considers whether the storyline was ever worthwhile to begin with.

I have only one question. Is this really a movie about Howard Hughes, or is it about Martin Scorsese?

Does Scorsese realize that he is actually hiding an autobiography inside a Hughes biography, or is he too lacking in self-awareness to realize this? I cannot imagine the latter, so I think he must be using Howard Hughes the filmmaker as his surrogate.

More than a week after I wrote my original review, I read the BBC's comments, and I've come back to insert this quote from them because I've concluded that their insight and eloquence bear repeating (which is to say they had the good sense to agree with me, and the skills to word my opinion better than I did):

" ... the reason The Aviator, despite its narrative meandering and flaws, lingers so long in the memory may be because Scorsese has made a film about himself - a driven dreamer whose professional passion is everything. "Movies are movies Howard, not life," scolds Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett); it's something the cinema-obsessed helmer has no doubt been told infinite times."

At any rate, following up on the "Scorsese = Hughes" theory, I think you can probably go dig up the reviews for Hell's Angels, if they still exist, and apply them directly to The Aviator. Scorsese storyboards scenes better than ... well, probably better than anyone in history, and he uses this ability to link each scene to the desired POV. The shots are perfectly composed. When Hughes looks over an aircraft prototype, we see it as he sees it, both physically and psychologically. We see with his eyes and we think with his brain. In addition, I expect the film will win every one of the nerd Oscars that usually go to films like Lord of the Rings. Sound editing, costumes, set design, art design, make-up, editing, cinematography are all tremendous. The action scenes are spectacular. This is a trip back into the era 1927-1947, and is probably a perfect evocation of that time, except way better! You know the era was as Scorsese pictures it, but was nowhere near as full, as flamboyant, as energetic, as colorful, or as much fun. The celebrity impersonations are also generally excellent. I expect Cate Blanchett to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress award in recognition of her showy performance as Kate Hepburn. DiCaprio himself is fine as Hughes.

So it's a great movie, right?

Not at all.

So it sucks?

No, certainly not.

Great directors do not make movies that completely suck, possible excepting Eyes Wide Shut. The Aviator cannot be compared at all to Eyes Wide Shut. In fact, in many ways the making of The Aviator is a polar opposite of that EWS situation. Everything good in Eyes Wide Shut was already in the source material, but every change Kubrick made was for the worst. The reverse is true of The Aviator. There wasn't much there, but Scorsese got every single thing he could have gotten from this script. It just wasn't enough for "great".

It's good. That's all. That's not enough from Scorsese.

Unfortunately, Martin Scorsese has now gotten to the point where he can't be advised or counseled. He's in the same exact boat that Coppola was in when he made that ridiculous Dracula movie. He's the unquestioned master, and there is nobody in the world who can sit him down and tell him the truth, or at least ask him the right question, which is this: "Marty, baby, I want you to read this script and ask yourself this question. If anybody but you made a movie from this script, would it be any good?" The answer is no. The parts of the film that are good are good only because Scorsese made a silk purse from a sow's ear. But the script wasn't anything special in the first place. It just doesn't have a lot of soul nor much energy, except for the brief portion that is a Katharine Hepburn biopic with Hughes as a minor character.

Then somebody should have asked Scorsese important question number two, which is this, "You've never had a big commercial hit. Would you like to?" I presume the answer is yes, so the follow-up is, "Can you name the things that are necessary for a film to become a massive popular hit?" As he recites the litany, he should note that one of those things is a reasonable running time. Why? Simple economics. A film can only get on so many screens. A two hour film on those screens can be shown far more times per day than a three hour film.

The film is playing on two theaters near me. One of them shows it only once per night, at 7:00. The other one shows it a second time, but they may as well not bother, because it starts at 10:30 and ends close to 2:00 because the trailers and ads start at 10:30, and the film starts whenever it starts. Call that 2 1/2 screenings per night from the two screens. If it were a basic 110 minute movie, the number would be four screenings. Each of the two theaters would have one at 7:00, and a second one at 9:20 ending at a sensible 11:30.

That's only the starting point of the argument. The supporting logic asks how many potential viewers will rule out a film simply because it is a three hour film, and they just don't want to sit through it. Therefore, they will avoid even the 7:00 showing. If you are going to make three hour films, you better fill them with action, adventure, sex, glamour, romance, and a lot more that I can't see on TV or in my own house. And an ending would be nice. After three hours, this one just kind of ends in the middle of the story.

Which leads us to the next point.

How the hell can you make Howard Hughes bland? He was a business pioneer like Bill Gates. Yet he was a horny playboy like Colin Farrell. He was a hands-on, daredevil achiever/adventurer like Richard Branson. Although successful in business, he was an outspoken critic of the corruption in the business system, like Warren Buffett. He directed movies after becoming rich in an unrelated field, like nobody I can think of. And he was completely batshit paranoid crazy to boot, like Hunter Thompson. He really was probably the most interesting man of the 20th century. Imagine if Richard Branson slept with all the biggest stars in Hollywood, went muckraking against corrupt legislators, directed movies like Martin Scorsese, and was as loony as Hannibal Lecter without the criminal streak. There's Howard Hughes. Do you think you could make a great movie about that guy? Well, for some reason, Martin Scorsese, the world's greatest director, really had to struggle.

I don't know how many times this scene actually happens in the film, but it seems like twenty:

Noah Dietrich: Howard you can't do this? You have to give up _____, or you're going to lose everything.

Hughes: Dammit, Noah, mortgage the ________, sell the __________, take out a loan from _______  using _______ as collateral.

Noah: But if the __________ fails, you'll lose everything.

Hughes: But it won't. Now dammit, Noah, just get it done.

Just cutting out those scenes would have made the film a two hour picture. I got the point the first time. Howard was reckless and never looked back. He was constantly willing to risk it all because he had no sense of the possibility of failure.

I do think, though, that Scorsese underemphasized or missed an important point inherent in that oft-repeated exchange. Howard Hughes was not successful in spite of his insanity. Like John Nash (A Beautiful Mind), Hughes was successful because of his insanity. Nash was a mathematical genius precisely because he saw things others could not. Hughes was a great risk taker simply because he did not fear failure and did not care when the odds were against him. He was reckless from the very beginning when he had nothing to lose, and didn't change no matter how much he had at stake. Yes, he was a visionary, but no sensible, sane man would have tried all that he tried. There were probably ten times in his life he could have failed and ended up in the poorhouse or the morgue. In about seven of those times, given the odds, he actually should have failed, but didn't. Did that nearness to failure dissuade him from future tries, as it might with a sensible man? Not at all. It just gave him a greater sense of his own invulnerability, a certainty that the odds did not apply to him. That isn't risk-taking. It's lunatic recklessness. A risk-taker wagers everything when the odds are in his favor. A lunatic wagers everything. Period.

Hughes was a man who would try to fly a craft which might not be airworthy, and he never feared for either public failure or his own life in his business adventures. He'd hold a camera while standing in the cockpit of a bi-plane, a situation in which he probably had a one in three chance of dying, but he was afraid to drink a glass of water in a restaurant, a situation which probably presented a one in a billion risk of death. How in the world did his sense of risk-assessment get turned around like this? I don't know, but I know the answer would make for a better movie than the one I just watched. I do wonder how Scorsese made a film about the world's most famous insane person, and managed to show us absolutely no insight into the causes or depth of his madness. The film simply repeats the oft-repeated stories about the symptoms exhibited by the ol' aviator.

The Aviator has been compared to Citizen Kane, but it is more like Citizen Kane II, the brilliant SNL parody.

Do you remember that skit? It was possibly the greatest sketch ever seen on Saturday Night Live. Hearst/Kane took over the newspaper that would become the foundation of his publishing empire. In his first day in the office, there was no newsworthy story capable of selling papers. He solved that problem by running to the window frenetically and unloading a revolver on some innocent bystanders. "Take a headline", was his frenzied bark. "Crazed sniper guns down six. Play up the innocent children angle, and offer a $10,000 reward for the capture of the madman!"

A printer ran in almost instantly, with the headline already printed while the words still echoed in the room, but Hearst/Kane fired him for an unconscionable delay, because "almost" instantly was not good enough for the great man. Hearst/Kane then kept gunning down pedestrians, and ordering headline revisions, firing more printers as needed.

You see where I'm going with this? The SNL Citizen Kane II skit was based on a wild exaggeration of Citizen Kane. You could not do an SNL  Aviator II skit, because The Aviator already is that skit. Just fill in the blanks on the Hughes/Dietrich exchange and repeat twenty times.

Noah Dietrich: Howard you can't do this! You have to give up (Jane Russell's tits) (the airline) (the Spruce Goose) (the inset rivets) (Hell's Angel's) (jet air travel), or you're going to lose everything.

Hughes: Dammit, Noah, mortgage the airplanes, sell the dirty pictures of Kate Hepburn, and take out a loan from Bank of Fond du Lac, using the TWA domestic routes as collateral. Hock my penis at a pawn shop. Just get the money.

Noah: But if (The Outlaw fails) (the CAB allows Pan Am to take our routes) (the Spruce Goose won't fly) (the insets cost too much) (Hell's Angel's bombs at the box) (jets aren't financially feasible), you'll lose everything, Howard, everything including your dick.

Hughes: But it won't fail. Now dammit, Noah, just get it done. Here, give me those scissors. (Unzips his fly)

By the end of the film, he had his dick attached with Velcro.

The greatest filmmaker of the 21st century making a film about the most interesting man of the 20th century. Should have been a slam dunk to result in a magnificent achievement, right? It isn't. It's a good movie with some tremendous scenes, but it is short of greatness. Scorsese could have received the best director Oscar. He had waited a long time (this was his fifth nomination without a win), and this film is a truly superior artistic and technical achievement, ala Lord of the Rings. But I can't see any way this could have been the best movie of the year. Where's the heart? Where's the point? The Aviator is spectacular, but too long and diffuse, and there's no there there except when Hepburn is in his life. It has a lot of great parts, but the whole is only the sum of the parts, no more. The low budget Melvin and Howard delivered more insight into Hughes as a real man, although Jason Robards had only a brief cameo as Hughes in an incident which might have been fictional to begin with.

I've often pointed out that Scorsese has a reputation as a great filmmaker despite never having won a single Oscar and never having had a single major hit. I don't mean that to be as cynical as it sounds, because I don't really dispute the general consensus that Scorsese is the greatest living filmmaker.

But when I think of him, I have the same feeling that the villagers had about Dr. Frankenstein. I wish he'd start using his genius for good instead of evil.

Martin Scorsese?

Nobody makes movies better.


But many people make better movies.

  • Commentary by director Martin Scorsese
  • Deleted scene: Howard Tells Ava About His Car Accident
  • A Life Without Limits: The Making of The Aviator
  • The Role of Howard Hughes in Aviation History
  • Modern Marvels: Howard Hughes, A Documentary by the History Channel
  • The Visual Effects of The Aviator
  • The Affliction of Howard Hughes: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
  • The Age of Glamour: The Hair And Makeup of The Aviator
  • Costuming The Aviator: The Work of Sandy Powell
  • Constructing The Aviator: The Work of Dante Ferretti
  • An evening with Leonardo DiCaprio and Alan Alda
  • OCD Panel Discussion With Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Scorsese, and Howard Hughes' Widow Terry Moore
  • Still Gallery
  • Scoring The Aviator: The Work Of Howard Shore
  • The Wainwright Family - Loudon, Rufus and Martha


Leo DiCaprio is seen naked several times, always darkly and discreetly, with only two clear looks at his bum.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus out of four stars: three and a quarter stars. James Berardinelli 3/4, Roger Ebert 4/4, BBC 4/5, Owen Gleiberman B.

The People Vote ...

  • Box Office Mojo. Production budget $110 million. Domestic gross $95 million. Overseas: $81 million. This has become Scorsese's top grosser.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C+. A brilliant training film for aspiring filmmakers and a made-for-critics epic. Hey, Scorsese, the rest of us are still waiting for our turn.

Return to the Movie House home page