The Greatest films of all time: 91.The Aviator (USA) (2004)


The best of Leonardo DiCaprio ever, and the best of Martin Scorsese since Taxi Driver, “The Aviator” was like a jackpot winner for the duo, due to its subject story. Based on the life story of Howard Hughes, an American genius, adventurer and the creator of one of the earliest aviation epics on the screen, “Hell’s Angels”, The Aviator brings his memory back. A business giant, record-setting pilot, filmmaker, and philanthropist that founded a huge medical institute for research that as of 2007 was the fourth largest private such organization, Hughes was as vulnerable as any ordinary man. Suffering from a severe OCD that DiCaprio demonstrates it the best on the screen, the film like Hughes’ life in between all the adventures and actions, is humane and touching.

The Aviator: Legends suffer too:

The film opens with Hughes’ childhood when his young mother bathes and warns him about an incident of Cholera epidemic at the time and that he is not safe. Hence sowing the seed of obsession about germs for the rest of his life. Jumping from there to 1927 when the 22 years old Hughes struggles hard to make his own aviation epic film, showing the world his largest airport in the world. Filming his airplanes with his 24 cameras, he needs two more cameras that when asking some Hollywood producers faces their mocks and rejections. Realizing that the movements of the planes in his film are not depicted on the screen well, smart Hughes discovers that he needs clouds in the background to show the actions better. He employs the best meteorologist, professor Fitz (Ian Holm) from UCLA to find him clouds and pays him double of what university paid him.

Forced to close his aviation film project due to its highly cost and not getting anywhere, he does not quit and keeps pushing forward against his business consultant, Noah Dietrich (John C. Reilly) advice and finishes his “Hell’s Angles”. The film is received with a huge accolade in its preview opening in Hollywood against all the odds. A star-studded life filled with relationships with the great stars of the golden age of Hollywood, from Jane Harlow (Gwen Stefani) to Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale), Hughes and the film is not only about his aviation adventure and filmmaking, but his sexual appetite and romances as well. One of the best example of American ambition, Hughes not only flew his airplanes and set records the first times, he took his lovers like Hepburn on a flight ride at night over Hollywood and LA and let her on the wheel.

A perfectionist in the design and build of his aircrafts, Hughes infuriates his engineers like Glenn “Odie” Odekirk (Matt Ross) when not fulfilling his expectations. Pushing himself and his planes to the limits, in one of his flight speed race test, he breaks the record of the fastest man on the planet in 1935, but at the end he crushes the plane into a farm field. Right after his record breaking air race, while Hepburn tends to his foot injury, Howard shows his other humane and fragile part when he reveals to her that at times he gets some ideas and sees things that are not real. His adventure takes another extreme by being the first man to fly around the globe in four days. One of the first signs of his OCD in the powder room of a reception is when he washes his hands with his personal bar of soap and refuses to hand the towel to a man on a walker who cannot reach it due to his obsession.

Visiting Hepburn’s family in their estate, at the dinner table, he criticizes the rich family when they pretend that they don’t care about the money. In a straightforward and unexpected manner, he breaks to them that they don’t care about the money, because they always had it. When his film with Jane Russell goes to censor for depicting the actress’ partially bare breasts on the screen, in a funny and smart scene, Hughes forces the professor Fitz as a medical expert prove to the censor committee that Russell’s breasts are not as open as the other actresses in the previous Hollywood films.

While Hughes’ ambition goes far to build the biggest airplane ever, “Hercules” and to sell it to the US Air Force for carrying soldiers overseas in the World War II, he buys the financially in struggle TWA. This puts him into rivalry with Pan American airline and its chairman, Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) who gets senator Owen Brewster (Alan Alda) to introduce and pass a bill in the senate to give Pan Am the monopoly of the international flights in US. Howard’s ambition goes on without a pause when the design of his new plane, “Constellation” to fly across the country is concluded and he orders to build 40 of them at a total cost of $18 million, while having no financial resources from TWA, but all from his own pocket.

Finally Howard’s ambitious aviation projects and preoccupation, gets in the way of his romantic relationship with Hepburn who finally leaves him for the fellow actor, Spencer Tracy whom later she weds to. In anger and sorrow, Howard burns all his clothes that he wore when in relationship with Hepburn. Then he employs a 15 years old girl, Faith Domergue (Kelli Garner) as his girlfriend and at the same time also dates the Hollywood actress, Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale). After the meeting at a dinner table with Juan, the chairman of Pan Am and brags about his new constellation aircraft with its cross Atlantic flight ability, Howard goes to the restroom to wash his hands. Set by the critic of his advisor, Noah why he had revealed the secret of constellation to Juan, in one of the best scene of obsessive hand washing on the screen, Howard washes his hands with his personal soap so hard to bleed.

One evening when going to dine with Ava Gardner, his 15 years old girlfriend contract, Faith who’s now attached to Howard, crushes to their car in another car out of jealousy. In another OCD scene while in discussion with his engineer, Odie, he keeps repeating the phrase, “show me the blue print, show me the blue print…..” that he cannot stop himself until he gets inside a car and closes his mouth by force. In a flight testing of his new XF-11 Reconnaissance aircraft, for an hour and 45 minutes, one of the engines fails and after gliding over Beverly Hills’s house roofs and destroying many houses, he crushes and with difficulty and miraculously gets out of the wreckage of the plane, ending severely burned with broken chest and bones. Meanwhile his Hercules contract with the US Air Force is cancelled as the World War II is already over and Hughes is left physically and financially broke, but still mentally strong and determined.

The senator Brewster invites Hughes to a private meeting at his house to convince him to give up his rivalry with Pan Am as US cannot have two international airlines. After failing in negotiation with the senator, his OCD again catches him and he locks himself in the dark of his room not letting anyone to get in, even Kate who has come to his rescue. He stays in his room naked, watches his own films, ruminates about things, repeats phrases and urinates in the bottles for three months. In this condition he is also visited by Juan from Pan Am behind the closed door again to convince him to sell TWA.

Finally when Ava Gardner visits him, he opens the door and lets her, when we see how the whole room is taped and divided to germ free zones. Ava finally grooms and dresses him to appear in the front of the senator Brewster’s committee hearing about the charge of wasting American tax payers money to build non-operational and non-delivered airplanes. In the hearing, Howard actually defeats the senator and the hearing turns around against Brewster. Finally the Hercules with its giant size, bigger than a football field, takes off the water and to the surprise of all the nation flies successfully by Howard himself. The film ends when Howard’s OCD gets the best of him again, repeating the phrase “the way of the future”, when in flashbacks recalling his mother while bathing him, telling him that he will not be safe.

The subject of many books and film projects including by many including Warren Beatty who was preoccupied with the life of Hughes since 1970’s and finally made a biopic of his life, “Rules don’t apply” in 2016, The Aviator brought the best depiction of a legend who was great while humane and fragile. After the film project passed among many Hollywood studios, screen writers, directors and actors, the lottery hit the luck of John Logan to write the script, Scorsese to direct it and DiCaprio to perform the role of the great young man. Working hard to know him, specially his struggles with OCD, DiCaprio as serious as Hughes was, he met with several sufferers of the disease so to depict the illness of the great man on the screen the best.

Nominated for 11 awards by the academy, including the best picture, best director, best actor and best original screenplay, unfortunately thefilm was granted only 5 awards for the best cinematography for Robert Richardson, best film editing for Thelma Schoonmaker, best costume design, best art direction and best actress in a supporting role to Cate Blanchett. Precisely to depict the era specially in making the “Hell’s Angels” by Hughes, Scorsese with the assistance of Robert Richardson applied a fusion of old and new lighting and color techniques and digital re-creations. A multi-faceted film as was its subject, Hughes, the film portrays the life of an American pioneer in aviation, while multi-talented in engineering, filmmaking and more, it also shows the golden age of Hollywood the best.


In closing remarks “The Aviator” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:  

  1. Originality: The originality of “The Aviator” is in bringing back to the screen the legend of Howard Hughes and remind us all of how ambition and determination could soar despite all the struggles and odds against.
  2. Technicality: The technicality of “The Aviator” is in its script, cinematography, editing, art direction and above all master crafted direction and great performance of Leonardo DiCaprio.
  3. Impact Factor: The influence of “The Aviator” perhaps goes back to Howard Hughes who has been for many years the subject of admiration and impact on the life of others, and the film truly does the justice to the cause of an American icon.
  4. Survival: “The Aviator” has not just survived well to this day, but it will survive into the future as its subject Hughes has survived and will survive in the minds of the present and future generations.


A new Cinema site