The genius of this Martin Scorsese portrayal of Howard Hughes is revealed in the first moments of the film.  Standing exposed in a bathing tub while his mother imbeds her paranoia about germs and diseases into his brilliant mind, we understand the depth of his struggle.  We know, without needing diagnostic explanations, why the life journey he is about to take will have turbulence.

            Inheriting wealth in his early 20s, Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio as an adult, Jacob Davich as a child) walks the line between being a perfectionistic genius whose compulsions drive him to great accomplishments and a mental illness which isolates him in a private torture.

Handsome and daring, brilliant and driven, Hughes set out to fulfill a childhood motto to make the biggest movies, fly the fastest planes and be the richest man in the world.  Parlaying his parents’ drill-bit company in Houston into a multi-million dollar empire which included Hughes Aircraft and Trans World Airlines, it is not difficult to admire his accomplishments.  But along with his success which elicits our admiration, the film masterfully weaves his disease and we realize that his strengths have an unsure foundation.

Though we don’t usually see it in such obvious form, this is often true of greatness.  Driven to succeed in a way that causes them to place unhealthy demands upon themselves and others, many people achieve success only to lose their own lives in the process.  Jesus noted: “What good is it for a person to gain the whole world, yet lose or forfeit his very self?”

In a very healing time in his life, Hughes is attracted to an equally beautiful, powerful yet eccentric, Katherine Hepburn (Kate Blanchett). Understanding and accepting him as he is, Hepburn attempts to meld their lives together.  However, over time, he not only cannot find acceptance from her family but also her own drive for fame competes with his and so their relationship disintegrates beneath them.  Though he later finds caring support from Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale), his loss of Katherine is an abiding personal sorrow.

We see Hugh’s frenetic genius in his obsession to create the biggest movie and the largest aircraft ever made, as well as a spy-plane that could fly higher and faster than any aircraft in the world.  All of these projects put him in danger, financially and personally, as the first two cost him a personal fortune and the last almost cost him his life.

Struggling with his fears and isolated by his inner drives, Howard Hughes lacked a larger purpose for his life than serving his own goals.   The film ends with his victory in the senate hearings before the corrupt senator Ralph Owen Brewster (Alan Alda) and his short flight of the “Spruce Goose.”  We are not shown his final days of purchasing Las Vegas hotels, or living sequestered in the window-blackened rooms within them wearing tissue-boxes for shoes.  But it is not difficult to envision where his life journey is headed, for we saw where he began.

“The Aviator” is a powerful film of a troubled life that contributed much to the science and development of aviation in our world.  But it also reveals the life of a man who crashed as dramatically in destruction as his flights of success soared above the ordinary.



  1. When we watch this young boy being systematically programmed by his mother to fear the diseases of the world, we know this is pathological.  The question is, how do we teach children about the dangers of the world without creating paranoia in them?  Do you believe that his mother’s abuse was more than psychological?
  2. The drive for fame and speed and wealth was strong in Hughes.  Do you believe this drive was as much a part of his turbulence as was his mental distress?
  3. The strength with which Hughes faced the corrupt Senator Brewster and beat Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) as head of Pan American Airlines was even more amazing knowing that he had to overcome his obsessive fears to appear at the hearing.  Do you believe this strength made him more or less susceptible to mental illness?
  4. Though not portrayed in this film, his need for someone to take care of him created the circumstances in which a group of Mormon people surrounded him.  It is said that they eventually controlled his personal and financial affairs.  How do you believe Hughes could have been best cared for in his condition?    
Posted on June 1, 2011 and filed under 3 STARS, POWERFUL.