REVIEWING THE REVIEWERS: The Aviator (2004)

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The infamous Hughes, a gangster industrialist by temperament in a nation in which money is just about everything. 

REVIEWING THE REVIEWERS—

Scorsese’s The Aviator never gets off the ground in terms of truthtelling

I recently saw–at last–THE AVIATOR, Martin Scorsese’s 2004 magnificently produced but basically superficial and (as critic David Walsh suggests in one of the reviews below) dishonest look at the life of eccentric tycoon Howard Hughes. When the film came out it was generally met with good notices: the mainstream critics actually hailed the picture as something of a cinematic achievement. The popular Rotten Tomatoes movie review aggregator —reflecting the overwhelming bourgeois composition of its critics—gave it an ample 88% favorable rating. But, in our view, artistic license is one thing; out and out falsification is another. For all his undeniable artistic and technical virtuosity, Scorsese, when not tackling mob scripts, or the ugly and often disturbed underside of American society, remains a disappointing director, and a good example of a man of humble origins that, having climbed all the way to the top, is now busily fawning over the upper class in which he’s apparently uneasily lodged.—P. Greanville

Why this dishonest portrait of a despicable figure?

By David Walsh /13 January 2005

The Aviator, directed by Martin Scorsese, written by John Logan

The Aviator, directed by Martin Scorsese and written by John Logan, sanitizes, indeed idealizes, the life of American industrialist Howard Hughes (1905-76) in such a manner as to make it nearly unrecognizable. The facts about Hughes’ activities, nearly all of them reprehensible, lie in the public record, but who will point to them and issue a protest?

The film treats approximately two decades of Hughes’ life. We see Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) obsessively at work in the late 1920s on his costly and time-consuming World War I aviation film, Hell’s Angels; pursuing various Hollywood beauties, including Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale); and attempting to pioneer new aircraft and set aviation records. The climax of the film, even as Hughes plunges into the initial stages of insanity, involves his conflict in 1947, as owner of Trans World Airlines (TWA), with giant rival Pan American and its political spokesmen in Congress.

DiCaprio, a gifted performer, is one of the film’s few saving graces. Blanchett, generally an even more gifted performer, is not. Her performance, drawn from bits and pieces of Hepburn’s screen persona, is shrill and unappealing. Is it not revealing that Scorsese could think of no other way of recreating Katharine Hepburn’s private life than directing his lead actress to borrow unthinkingly physical and vocal mannerisms from various films? Such an approach, which leaves out studying the deeper, inner meaning of Hepburn’s life and work, precludes the possibility of any genuine insight. Beckinsale is not credible as Ava Gardner. The effectiveness of the film’s flying sequences cannot make up for a cliched and predictable script in every other regard.

The filmmakers present Hughes as an heroic and essentially sympathetic, albeit eccentric, figure. Indeed, in public comments, Scorsese makes clear his admiration. In an interview posted on romanticmovies.about.com, the veteran director observes: “Howard Hughes was this visionary, was obsessed with speed and flying like a god above everyone else, [and] was as rich as one of the Greek mythical kings, King Croesus. But ultimately having to pay that price, too. I loved [Hughes’] idea of what filmmaking was. He became the outlaw of Hollywood in a way.”

He continues: “This visionary who was obsessed with speed. Young, energetic, filled with wonder and excitement, not only with aviation but also of Hollywood and making big movies.” And finally: “And at the same time, a man who wants to fly to the sun like Icarus. But his wings really are wax, ultimately.”

Presented sympathetically as a tortured hero, Hughes’ sordid legacy is completely airbrushed by Scorsese.

Screenwriter Logan describes Hughes corporate battle with Pan Am as “a clear David and Goliath story because Pan Am, at the time, it was Tiffany’s, it was the top of the game. And TWA was just a struggling little airline.”

A god, a mythical Greek king, an outlaw, a visionary, Icarus, David versus Goliath. Aside from anything else, these comments reflect the prostration of contemporary filmmakers before wealth and power. As usual, they rely on the general public’s low level of historical knowledge.

Howard Hughes is a legitimate subject for cinema. There are many potentially fascinating and even tragic aspects of his life. In undertaking such an effort, however, one would have to have at least one seriously critical bone in one’s body.

The very structure of The Aviator is dishonest, whether consciously or not, and designed to conceal the essential truth about Hughes’ life. It ends with his supposed public victory over his tormentors in Congress and the airline industry. What a telling and conformist decision!

Perhaps Orson Welles should have adopted the same strategy and ended Citizen Kane with the party held to celebrate New York Inquirer publisher Charles Foster Kane’s triumph over his rivals at the Chronicle. Welles, however, had something else in mind: a criticism of the “great man.” That colorful, lively party scene is followed soon after by the comment of Kane’s assistant, Bernstein, “Mr. Kane was a man who lost almost everything he had.” The film carries on and documents Kane’s decline and fall.

If Logan (The Last Samurai, Gladiator, Any Given Sunday)—an admirer of Welles and screenwriter for RKO 281, the story of the director’s legendary battle with newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst—intends The Aviator to be his Citizen Kane, he has failed badly. As I noted in a review of RKO 281, “Citizen Kane, made by someone with left-wing political sympathies (of which no hint is given in RKO 281), called into question aspects of the American dream and criticized a man who sacrificed principle and potential greatness on the altar of money and power.”

Halting at 1947 falsifies Hughes’ life, which‘flowered,’ so to speak, in the Cold War and the postwar era in general. It avoids his role as a fanatical anti-communist, who purged his own studio, RKO, of left-wingers, and his campaigns against screenwriter Paul Jarrico and Chaplin’s Limelight; his well-known links to the Mafia; his business and personal dealings with bloody dictators such as Cuba’s Batista, the Dominican Republic’s Trujillo and Nicaragua’s Somoza; his sale of TWA for half a billion dollars and his subsequent bizarre retreat to Las Vegas; his alleged participation in an assassination plot against Fidel Castro; his multifarious and lucrative association with the CIA (according to a biographer, for example, in 1963 the US spy agency linked up with mob connections through a Hughes-connected firm “to support fascist governments in South America”); his profiteering during the Vietnam War (the same biographer describes Hughes Aircraft as “an adjunct … of the American government”); his buying up of Republican and Democratic politicians alike (“I can buy any man in the world,” he boasted); his especially intimate ties to Richard Nixon and his apparent role in the Watergate conspiracy; his drug addiction; and, of course, his descent into hypochondria, paranoia and, ultimately, total lunacy. One might legitimately describe Hughes as something of an American fascist type.

(In this light, the revelation made by biographer Charles Higham (Howard Hughes: The Secret Life) is relevant, that in 1938—within the time-frame of the Scorsese film, it should be pointed out—“he [Hughes] had formed a secret partnership with [Swedish industrialist] Axel Wenner-Gren, one of his rivals as the world’s richest man, the founder of Electrolux and the inventor of the modern refrigerator, who was a friend of Field Marshal Goering and an arch-negotiator behind the scenes, with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, for a permanent peace with Nazi Germany and a cordon sanitaire against the Soviet Union.” Hughes, just to make the picture complete, was a lifelong racist and anti-Semite.)

Logan’s approach is intriguing. What prominent individual’s life could not be made to shine or at least improved markedly if all the unpleasant portions were subtracted? Why not a biography of Al Capone concluding in 1919 with the future gangster recently and happily wed, with a new child and working as an accountant in Baltimore? Or a life of Joseph McCarthy that finishes on a note of triumph, his first election victory in 1939, after campaigning tirelessly, as a judge in the Tenth Judicial Court in Wisconsin?

This is overstating the case, to make a point. Hughes had an independent career as an aviator, and he was 42 in 1947, not 20 like Capone in 1919, or 30 like McCarthy in 1939. Nonetheless, Hughes is not remembered today, nor should he be, primarily as an aviation innovator. Higham describes how, in the wake of Hughes’ record-breaking world flight, the “Army Air Corps [forerunner of the Air Force] refused to do business with him; even though he was America’s hero, the brass knew what a wretched businessman and spendthrift playboy he was, and that the planes he designed were useless for military purposes.” Not a hint of this enters into Logan’s script.

No doubt Hughes was brave or reckless (which sometimes led to other people’s deaths), or perhaps both, and possessed of a certain flair. Moreover, he must have had certain endearing qualities, at least as a younger man, to interest someone as intelligent as Hepburn. However, the filmmakers’ responsibility was to build up the most complex and detailed picture possible, taking into account every aspect of Hughes’ life. This they have not done.

Hughes broke the most new ground not as an aviator, or a lover, but as a gangster-businessman—hostile to any government regulation of his businesses and, according to Higham, hating to pay a penny in taxes; bragging of his ability to bribe anyone, including entire governments; and associating, directly or through his underlings, with thugs like mobsters Johnny Roselli and Sam Giancana. Can it be entirely coincidental that a period which has witnessed the criminalization of the American political and corporate world produces a film such as this?

One doubts that this is Logan’s or Scorsese’s conscious purpose. Each may very well consider himself, for instance, an opponent of the Bush administration’s policies. But these semi-intellectual elements, never having worked out a single critical social or political issue in a serious fashion, are decidedly vulnerable to noxious fumes emanating from the ruling circles. Reluctantly or otherwise, they resign themselves to what they see as inevitable, the domination of such figures. In reality, they are in awe of them. And here we discover a continuity with much of Scorsese’s previous work, which, in the end, has romanticized the Mafia thug and turned him into a peculiar variety of American folk hero.

To make Hughes into a rebel on the basis of his conflict with Pan Am is absurd. There was nothing inherently progressive in his opposition to Pan Am’s monopoly on trans-Atlantic travel. Indeed, although the film neglects to point this out, Hughes had become a wealthy man precisely through a virtual monopoly his father had secured over drill bit technology (for drilling for oil through deep layers of rock), a monopoly Hughes vigorously and ruthlessly sought to defend.

Nor was TWA some tiny, defenseless operation up against an overwhelming giant in Pan Am. In 1946 TWA had $57 million in revenues, against Pan Am’s $113 million, American’s $68 million, United’s $65 million and Eastern’s $42 million. With Hughes’ personal fortune behind it, TWA hardly had its back to the wall. Hughes eventually sold his interest in TWA for more than half a billion dollars, making him one of the richest men in the world.

One can only add that the notion that Hughes, many times a multi-millionaire already by 1947, was ‘bucking the establishment’ by demanding to be cut in on the lucrative international air travel market is a concept worthy of the producers of Fox’s faltering ‘reality show,’ “The Rebel Billionaire,” featuring Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic Airways.

Hand in hand with the glorification of the gangster-industrialist goes the equally unsavory promotion of right-wing, populist anti-intellectualism, also an adaptation to the prevailing official political atmosphere. The crucial scene that Logan and Scorsese set in the Connecticut home of Hepburn’s parents is ludicrous. At a dinner party, Hepburn’s family and friends condescend to Hughes, ignore him and spout empty phrases about injustice and the plight of the poor. The filmmakers have nastily projected Tom Wolfe’s “radical chic” back into the past, for the same vile purposes: to caricature any opposition to the existing order as the product of wealthy, hypocritical liberals.

Hepburn’s mother is made to declare piously, “We’re all socialists here,” and Hughes says something to the effect that the dinner guests have no interest in money because they were all born into it. The clear implication, which the filmmakers do nothing to dispel, is that he was not. In fact, Hughes, orphaned at 18, inherited $871,518—or $9.4 million in 2003 dollars; by 1938, thanks to other people’s astute management of Hughes Tool Co., he was worth $60 million (three-quarters of a billion dollars in today’s money). He was a far wealthier man than Hepburn’s father, a surgeon and urologist.

There is a reactionary logic to the film’s ideological stance. In Gangs of New York, Scorsese portrayed the working class population of the old Five Points district of New York City, contrary to one’s understanding of these things, as well as the historical record, as villainous, depraved and gleefully vicious. In his latest film, Scorsese takes a man who was genuinely villainous, depraved and willfully vicious and depicts him as a god, a visionary, a man who flew too close to the sun. And they will tell us that class interests and social pressures play no role in art!

It is not possible to make a serious film about American public life and a personality such as Hughes, who intervened extensively, for better or worse, over a period of decades in that public life, without weighing political events and social processes and drawing conclusions, without knowing something. One cannot make sense of Hughes simply on his own terms, as an individual abstracted from history. The filmmakers have tried to do this and the result is miserable.

See Also:

 

By infusing Hughes with far more sexiness and magnetism that he probably had, Di Caprio ends up burnishing the memory of Howard Hughes and the costly excesses inherent in letting plutocrats do as they please.

The Aviator, And Spinning Howard Hughes: Scorsese Takes Lessons from Managed Media

By Prairie Miller / WBAI Arts Magazine /Artsmagazine@juno.com

If the politics of US imperialism has its individual psychological counterpart in, say, control freak megalomania tinged with paranoia and obsessive compulsive disorder, then it’s possible that eccentric airplane industry tycoon and movie mogul Howard Hughes may very well be capitalism’s very own classic psychiatric model. But of course Hollywood making any kind of frank or insightful movie about one of its most adored affluent icons, Hughes, would be like George Bush writing the definitive expose on the 2000 presidential election.

Well, Martin Scorsese has undertaken his own flashy Howard Hughes biopic, and what you get is all tabloid-style gloss, accessorized with brassy special effects, and bloated storytelling based loosely on period gossip. The Aviator may also be, in its rambling way, more about Scorsese’s own love affair with movies, not to mention possible mother issues, which he seems to project on Hughes. The Aviator is also indicative of Scorsese’s unfortunate trajectory downward, since his days as a uniquely subversive chronicler of the sinister underbelly of US social resentment, inequity and despair, in movies like Boxcar Bertha, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and King Of Comedy.

Scorsese’s more recent fawning over the upper class elite to which he has ascended, but perhaps still feeling like a social outsider, reveals itself in movies like Casino, Goodfellas, The Age Of Innocence, and now The Aviator. Lower class alienation has clearly given way to upper class alienation, from the point of view of the roost he now occupies.

Howard Hughes, as rather generously reimagined by Scorsese, is not at all the real life red-baiting McCarthyite union buster and destroyer of lives we saw during the Hollywood Blacklist. In the cleaned up version of “Hughes the playboy and first billionaire,” you will find none of that. And if he’s tormented by demons that precipitate a slow descent into obsessive-compulsive madness, guess who gets all the blame? None other than one of those notorious shrewish movie moms. In a split second opening scene that’s intended to set the stage for everything else, mom tells him that germs are bad, and hands the kid a bar of soap. But isn’t that what mothers are supposed to do? That Hughes’ mental disintegration was in fact caused by syphilis is nowhere to be found in this doctored narrative.

Beyond the myth propagated by Scorsese, lies Hughes, the natural by-product of an aggressive and super-confident America of the last century, that enriched itself off the misery and destitution of other countries’ wars. And Hughes was bent on taking by storm the burgeoning airplane and movie industries. All too conveniently, Scorsese abruptly brings this indulgent epic to a screeching halt, as the plane enthusiast triumphantly flies his experimental colossus The Hercules, in a case of my wing span is bigger than yours. And apparently the biggest and widest ever.

What Scorsese conceals with his rose-colored camera lens, is what followed just a few years later. Namely, Hughes’ own record of vicious red-baiting and union busting. This odd memory lapse is likely related to Scorsese’s own odious act at the 1999 Academy Awards, in presenting an honorary Oscar to House Un-American Activities snitch and accomplice to precipitating the Blacklist, Elia Kazan. And this before Scorsese’s stunned and dismayed colleagues in the Academy audience. Will his circuitous bid to honor yet another betrayer in Hollywood at the Oscars this year, likewise raise a storm if The Aviator wins awards?

Hughes had actually recruited a succession of filmmakers to direct his movie, “I Married A Communist,” as a ploy to weed out Hollywood leftists, in a test of their so-called patriotism. Those who turned down the job had their names turned over to HUAC and the Blacklist, by Hughes.

In the newspaper The Las Vegas Mercury last year, there was an article, “The Story Behind The Las Vegas Story,” the name of a 1952 Hughes movie. The film’s screenwriter, Paul Jarrico, was summoned to appear before HUAC during production, and refused to testify. Hughes, a rabid anti-communist, immediately fired Jarrico illegally, refused to allow him even to retrieve his personal belongings from the RKO Studio, and removed his name from the credits. According to the Mercury article, this is what followed:

“The Writers Guild, acting under its collective bargaining agreement, determined that Jarrico was legally entitled to a screen credit, and they threatened Hughes with a strike. Hughes remained defiant of the contract, and filed a countersuit, claiming Jarrico had violated the morals clause of his contract by not revealing to RKO his involvement with the Communist Party.”

Hughes, with all his money, of course, prevailed in court. Before the Writers Guild had time to react with a strike, Hughes fired everyone, claiming he was curtailing production until “the communist problem was solved.” In the climate of the Red Scare, the Guild and Jarrico were on the losing side. And Hughes’ brazen dismissal of Guild arbitration had a chilling effect on Hollywood.

In 1997, the Writers Guild honored Jarrico after his death, in a ceremony praising screenwriters victimized by the Blacklist, and they had his name reinstated in the credits of the now long forgotten “The Las Vegas Story.” But what became of Jarrico after he was blacklisted? He went on to produce a small independent film with other blacklisted writers and performers, about a workers’ strike. Namely “Salt Of The Earth.” Banned at the time in the US from pressure by Hughes and others, “Salt Of The Earth” was recently added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, as one of the greatest films of all time.

And Howard Hughes? According to the Las Vegas Mercury, “Hughes went on to star in his own tragic Las Vegas story,” in a way, borderline insane and “ensconced in a prison of his own making with late stage syphilis, on the top floor of the Las Vegas Desert Inn Resort.” And when threatened with eviction, he bought the entire hotel, just so he couldn’t be thrown out. Now wouldn’t that have made a far better movie than The Aviator?

Prairie Miller / WBAI Arts Magazine / Artsmagazine@juno.com

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