Martin Scorsese’s first film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door?, proclaimed what he wanted—no, what he had—to do with his magnificent talent: make poetry out of male obsession. And Scorsese, like Dostoyevsky, knows how to get inside the skulls of his half-mad heroes. Viewed objectively, Jake La Motta the Raging Bull was a testosterone-charged idiot shattering his family and wrecking his career, but Scorsese made us see things Jake’s way, made us understand his resentments and his peculiar honor, though our stomachs churned to do so.
But is there such a thing as a Dostoyevskian movie blockbuster? We were bound to find out when Scorsese, with the production of Gangs of New York, launched himself as a mega-director like Steven Spielberg and James Cameron. Now when Spielberg restaged D-Day, he put a profoundly sane hero played by Mr. Nice Guy himself, Tom Hanks, to be our surrogate in the center of the slaughter, just as James Cameron, filming the Titanic disaster, created old-fashioned sweethearts for us to identify with. But suppose Scorsese had made Saving Private Ryan or Titanic? Would we want to land on Omaha Beach led by Raskolnikov or scramble into a lifeboat with Ivan Karamazov? Scorsese’s ability to stage action sequences and engulf the eye with spectacle has never been questioned, but what Scorsesean hero could hold the center of a Hollywood superproduction?
Gangs begged the question because Scorsese went overboard in making his avenging hero so traditional, indeed so one-dimensional, that the audience’s attention shifted to Daniel Day Lewis’s bravura turn as the villain—not a psychological portrait but an expressionistic hoot.
But now, with The Aviator, Scorsese seems to have the problem licked because the hero of this superproduction is Howard Hughes. As tycoon, inventor, test pilot of his own aircraft, Hollywood producer, and lover of numerous movie stars and starlets, Hughes is an action hero rivaling Indiana Jones (and doesn’t he wear the same kind of hat?). But as a hypochondriacal recluse locking himself in dark rooms and urinating into milk bottles, as jealous manipulator of mistresses, and as the victim of a corrupt congressional committee, Hughes gives Jake La Motta a run for the booby hatch. A Spielbergian hero on the outside and a Scorsesean obsessive inside, Hughes would seem to be Scorsese’s springboard into the mass market without compromising himself.
Still, there are a couple of problems with the screenplay by John Logan. As Logan writes it, the tycoon’s descent into madness wasn’t a steady plummet but a zig-zag: he goes nuts, he recovers, he fantasizes, he snaps out of it, he locks himself in a room for months, then emerges to overawe his enemies and fly his plane Hercules to glory. However true to the life, this is an annoying dramatic rhythm, like riding in a car that lurches forward, stalls, lurches, stalls. Yet Scorsese finesses this flaw pretty well by staging each psychological breakdown as worse than the preceding one, and each triumph as more vivid. The Aviator zig-zags all right, but it zig-zags with gusto.
The other problem is less surmountable since it arises out of Scorsese’s artistic nature. He is, fundamentally, a sensationalist adept at staging physical action and even better at portraying emotional torment so viscerally that it becomes a virtual physical spectacle. Thus, The Aviator is at its best when Hughes is either up in the air or cowering in locked rooms. There is a classic scene in which Hughes suffers a slight cut in a nightclub’s rest room and, suddenly gripped by his germ phobia, finds himself unable to grasp the door knob. He must hover near the exit, desperate for someone else to come in so that he can slip out. Skillfully cutting back and forth between Hughes and the terrorizing objects around him, the director superbly realizes the physical torture chamber that phobic hell books for its victims.
Still, since Scorsese clearly wants us to see Hughes as an industrial hero whose grandness of vision dwarfs both his enemies and his own shortcomings, there has to be more to this movie than physical jolts and cerebral snarls. There have to be scenes in which the hero can express his vision to his collaborators and, through them, to us. There also has to be some hint of what attracted men to work for him and so many women to sleep with him. (And it’s got to be more than taking his dates on night flights and letting them handle the controls.)
As scripted by Logan and played by Leonardo DiCaprio, Hughes comes across too often as a yipping runt, a cracker-munchkin like H. Ross Perot—without the organizational shrewdness. His putative genius here lacks an objective correlative. Are we suppose to admire him for building a transport ship bigger than any predecessor but so difficult to assemble that World War II was over before it could be used? I’m afraid Scorsese may have been drawn to Hughes because he identified the tycoon with visionary moviemakers like D. W. Griffith and Erich von Stroheim who defied studio bosses and often made unreleasable movies, just as Hughes defied fellow capitalists and made a monster ship. But if this is the case, the parallel doesn’t work since the moviemakers made films that, however overdone, contain treasures that would one day be seen by the public, while a useless transport ship is a...a useless transport ship. The Hercules subsequently served as a prototype for more successful ships, but Scorsese doesn’t dramatize the successes, only the spectacular failure.
Likewise, as a lover, Hughes is only a stage-door Johnny courting movie stars. Though Cate Blanchett and Kate Beckinsale charmingly embody and differentiate Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner, the script puts them through the same paces. Both are trapped shrilling lines like “You can’t buy me!” just as the millionaire’s minions are trapped bellowing “You can’t do that, Howard! It won’t work!” over and over.
Nor is Hughes’s inability to make contact with people rooted in a psychologically plausible childhood. In Citizen Kane, we see little Charley Kane being rejected by his mother, but we fully comprehend that she is only trying to launch her son into a better, more elegant life than she can inhabit. The equivalent scenes in The Aviator—little Howard being led into hypochondria by a mother murmuring vaguely of an epidemic and telling him he’ll “never be safe”—make no sense whatsoever. Why would a mother behave this way? I’m sure there are explanations in the numerous Hughes biographies, but why aren’t they in the movie?
The Aviator is splendidly designed, edited, scored, and photographed by a quartet of geniuses, respectively: Dante Ferretti, Thelma Schoonmaker, Howard Shore, and Robert Richardson. And they have all served their presiding genius well, for I must admit that The Aviator contains at least a dozen scenes that I will watch many times when it comes out on DVD. (The visit to Hepburn’s parental home has one of the most daring and subtle uses of sound in movie history.) Yet at the core of this long and glamorous movie is something opaque, cold, and inert.