The Aviator

The Aviator

The Aviator is Martin Scorsese’s biopic of Howard Hughes, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes.

The nearly three hour long film barely touches on Hughes’s childhood and skips the last roughly two decades of his life. The latter period is when his mental illness was at its most severe, and he was a total recluse hidden away in his Las Vegas hotel. If anything that’s the period you would expect a biography to focus on; at least it’s the most sensational period that naturally draws people’s curiosity. But perhaps Scorsese felt that what was truly a remarkable life ought not be dominated by just the most bizarre, morbid part of it, the way it has come to be in the mind of much of the public. So The Aviator is an attempt to reintroduce the audience to Hughes as a mover and shaker in Hollywood and in the field of aviation.

Which is not to say that the mental illness issue is ignored. To the contrary, it is as prominent a theme in the movie as any other. But instead of showing us the aging Hughes when he was a complete loon, The Aviator shows us the young Hughes with his various lesser but increasing eccentricities that we know eventually reached that point of total lunacy.

Hughes was in a great many ways a very functional, indeed dynamic and highly efficient, person, yet from early on those around him could see there was something not quite right in the head about him, and at times he could see it too. That’s part of what’s interesting about the film: we’re watching a man fighting a scary battle against elements of his own mind—things that he only intermittently is able to recognize as threats, that he knows really no way to deal with other than to bear down harder and try to will himself not to succumb to, and that—as we know though he doesn’t—will eventually defeat him.

Another angle to consider in The Aviator is wealth and material success.

It’s probably an exaggeration to call The Aviator hagiographic, but it leans in that direction. For the most part, Hughes is presented as the kind of rich guy we’re supposed to admire and root for.

Hughes is depicted as the self-made man, the innovative risk-taker. He wasn’t really a self-made man in the sense of starting with nothing—he was born into an at least moderately wealthy family with a successful inventor and businessman father and a prominent movie director uncle, so it’s not like he lacked material resources, contacts, or role models—but he was the type who didn’t just spend or sit on the wealth generated by others, but showed great initiative and drive in generating additional wealth and success from what he started with, of course ultimately amassing a fortune that dwarfed his initial stake.

Wealth never seemed to be an end-in-itself for him, or just a way to keep score of his merit. I’d say it was in some ways a byproduct of pursuing his passions, and in some ways something he valued as a means toward pursuing his passions.

That is, he wanted to be rich, and stay rich, so he could have the maximum freedom to build and fly airplanes, make movies, date movie stars, etc. And his doing those things the way he did (well, the first two anyway) generated still more wealth, which enabled him to continue to pursue his dreams.

Or to put it another way, his ego wasn’t so much about “I’m richer than you” as “I can design better planes than you,” “I can make better movies than you,” “I can run a business more successfully than you,” etc.

In order to present him as a hero, the film diminishes his adversaries. There are the “doubters” in the press and the public who are skeptical of his risks in aviation and film, always predicting disastrous failure and then being proven wrong by the self-directed Hughes who refuses to be influenced by the nay-sayers. There are the government lawmakers and regulators seeking to restrain him—not for any justifiable reason, but due to their own dishonesty and/or lack of insight, represented especially by Alan Alda as a stereotypical corrupt politician who has been basically bribed by a business rival of Hughes—whom Hughes dramatically denounces for their hypocrisy and venality. There is Katherine Hepburn’s family (she was a girlfriend of his for a time) representing old money, the type who are all about a stifling propriety and etiquette, and whose crusty old matron severely informs Hughes at dinner one evening that “We don’t care about money here, Mr. Hughes,” which provides him an opportunity to shut them down with the retort, “You don’t care about money because you’ve always had it. Some of us choose to work for a living.”

He is supposedly the great man of vision, who soars beyond us regular folks due to his intellect and financial acumen, but especially due to his high risk/high reward riverboat gambler approach to life.

I think there is plenty of evidence that he had considerable ability at things like aviation and filmmaking, but I’m wary of this notion that his trait of believing in himself to the extreme of being willing to regularly make huge gambles on himself was somehow the secret to his success, or an indication that there was something extraordinary about him. I mean, it’s easy to admire someone who is not afraid to put it all on the line like that, but maybe some or a lot of the risks were dumb and he just got lucky.

Consider a hypothetical case of a hundred people who over the course of their life accumulate savings in the five or six figures, head to Las Vegas, and find some high stakes casino with high enough limits that they can put it all on a number on the roulette wheel at 35 to 1 odds.

Probably two or three of them would get filthy rich. Would their success prove that there’s something special (in a good way) about them, that they had some greater insight into the matter than those in their life—spouse or other relatives, pathetic bean-counter accountant or financial advisor—who implored them not to do what they did, that the key to success in life is the willingness to take huge risks without batting an eye? Is that what separates those two or three from the other 97 or 98, or from the far greater number of people who wouldn’t have made such a wager in the first place? Is that what makes them superior or extraordinary compared to everyone else? Hardly. It’s their reckless stupidity that separates them from the people who would never make such a wager, and it’s blind, dumb luck that separates them from those who did make such a wager and lost; in neither case is it anything admirable or impressive about them.

Which is not to say that Hughes consistently made poor gambles and got lucky, or that there wasn’t anything extraordinary about him that explains his extraordinary success (rising all the way to being the richest person in the world). But my point is that the mere fact that he (if the movie is to be believed) routinely risked financial ruin in gambling on himself and his ideas and that he ended up amassing almost unimaginable wealth doesn’t prove that his risk-taking behavior was a manifestation of brilliance and strength of character.

Maybe he got as rich as he did because his gambles were wise ones, and maybe not. Maybe there are dozens or hundreds or thousands of other folks who behaved similarly that we’ve never heard of and don’t hold up as examples of extraordinary people worthy of biopics because they simply weren’t as lucky and hence came to ruin, and maybe not.

In contrasting Hughes with “old money” people who don’t bother to work or take risks in order to live comfortably because they don’t have to, small-minded critics, corrupt politicians, etc., and making him out to be a hero, the movie maybe downplays certain unappealing political aspects of Hughes.

Based on the little bit of reading I did on Hughes after watching the film, it sounds like he was a vicious McCarthy-type, trying to purge anyone with suspicious leftist tendencies from his various enterprises, supporting some of the most evil right wing political figures of his time like Nixon, etc.

The impression I get of him is that he was one of those extreme libertarian-style right wingers, the kind that puts such a high value on his own autonomy and his own liberty to do anything and everything he wants as to ignore competing values and facts.

Our success and failure in life, material and otherwise, is invariably a product of countless factors—some under our control and others not—that interact in practically infinitely complex ways. But people like I’m thinking of convince themselves that any success they have in life is all their doing, while failure is typically instead attributable to government regulators, unreliable workers, greedy union bosses, whatever.

They don’t acknowledge that they had a huge head start being born into a family with money, that they benefitted from the subtle but significant social advantages of being white and male, that the “big government” they rail against helped them via public education and universities, government contracts they took advantage of, etc., that they cut various ethical corners—or worse—to get ahead, or that to some extent they just were luckier than many people who manifested just as much merit and worked just as hard. No, whatever they have, “This is mine. I earned it. It’s all about me. How dare anyone tax me or try to restrict what I do with what I’ve got or how I go about accumulating more?!”

They don’t acknowledge any sense of “we’re all in this together,” that we have any collective responsibility toward each other, or that maximizing freedom for some can mean lessening it for others. It’s not like if we eliminated all the governmental restraints on business that such libertarian “every man for himself” conservatives despise that the result would be a utopia filled with Howard Hugheses pursuing their dreams and satisfying every whim they have. In order for there to be some tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny number of such completely unfettered free people at the top doing as they please their whole lives, there have to be a massive number of people working in their businesses following orders and having very little day-to-day freedom, people living—and dying—in the neighborhoods where Hughes and his ilk crash their planes that they fly recklessly because they’re such bold risk-takers, people deprived of any meaningful opportunity to make anything of themselves because there is no tax-supported funding for the various programs that might give people at the bottom a fighting chance in life, etc.

Even if in theory this kind of libertarianism means maximal freedom for all, in practice it ends up meaning maximal freedom only for the Nietzschean supermen, which to me is closer to a dystopia than a utopia.

Obsessing over controlling every aspect of your life, of having no one or nothing restricting you, can be a dead-end that leaves you never feeling truly free and fulfilled. There will always be something you don’t yet have enough money to do, something you’re blocked from doing by law, social reality, or whatever. I say that even as someone with a fierce commitment to personal autonomy. I just recognize it as an attitude that taken to an extreme can be self-defeating, and that can adversely affect your capacity to connect with others and truly feel a part of a community.

The Aviator is highly watchable; it’s a product of very skilled filmmaking, as you’d expect from Scorsese. DiCaprio—in spite of looking nothing like Hughes—is excellent at playing Hughes as a larger-than-life figure, someone who dominates every situation he’s in, who always grabs your attention. Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) is certainly an interesting figure in the film, arguably a caricature with her flamboyant, over-the-top style, but my impression is that the real Hepburn may well have been very much like that, and that this may be one of those cases where an accurate portrayal can’t help but come across as inaccurate and caricatured.

Howard Hughes was surely admirable in many ways, and an ugly human being in some. The Aviator is better at showing the former than the latter—unless you count mental illness as reflecting negatively on someone (which most would agree you shouldn’t), as it certainly does depict him as slowly going crazy.

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