Program Notes: The Aviator (2004)

Martin Scorsese’s three-hour epic The Aviator – about the middle years of airman-industrialist-moviemaker-mental case Howard Hughes – is so ambitious, so daringly executed, and so entertaining that it's hard to wrap one's head around it.

About every 10 minutes in the movie's first hour, Scorsese delivers a sequence so jaw-droppingly perfect that a sort of giddiness sets in. It's like he's just discovered all the cool things you can do with a movie camera.

And for those who thought Leonardo DiCaprio was just a pretty face, a few minutes into the movie he so inhabits Hughes' skin that you wonder what sort of Mephistophelian pact he signed to pull it off.

John Logan's screenplay focuses on just 20 years in Hughes' life and follows three plot threads: Hughes' efforts to establish himself in the movie business; his love of building and flying airplanes; and his struggle to ensure that his airline, TWA, not be shot down by competition and unscrupulous politicians.

Film Screening:
The Aviator (2004)
Monday, July 1 at 6:30 p.m.
Central Library

In each of these endeavors, Hughes proves himself to be a risk-taker of the first order, willing to back his ideas with his own money and to push the edges of science and public morality.

Sprinkled throughout are intimations of the madness that eventually would overtake Hughes and lead him to spend his final years as an eccentric recluse surrounded by jars of his own bodily fluids. Many of us know Hughes only as that sad, crazy old man, but Logan and Scorsese cast him as a tragic figure noteworthy not because he lost his sanity, but because he fought the darkness for so long and accomplished so much before succumbing.

While acknowledging the basket case that Hughes would become, The Aviator presents him as a classic example of the driven American go-getter, the rugged individualist whose hubris can change the world. If Hughes wasn't exactly a self-made man (he inherited a fortune), he repeatedly gambled everything to make his vision a reality.

The film is richly seasoned with memorable moments, particularly his years in Hollywood and his romance with Katharine Hepburn, played by Cate Blanchett with such brio that it transcends mere imitation and enters the realm of spiritual possession. (She won the Oscar for best supporting actress.)

Air enthusiasts will glom onto the passages in which Hughes designs, builds, and flies (often crashing) experimental aircraft. Logan is absolutely right to end the film with the one and only flight of the Spruce Goose, the gigantic cargo plane that many experts thought could never get airborne.

And did you know that shortly after World War II a U.S. senator backed a bill that would give the rights to all trans-Atlantic passenger air service exclusively to TWA competitor Pan Am? It was that monopolistic ploy that pulled Hughes out of his encroaching craziness just long enough to deliver angry testimony before Congress – his finest moment as a public figure.

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Scorsese has assembled a deep supporting cast that includes John C. Reilly as Hughes' confidant Noah Dietrich, Kate Beckinsale as onetime Hughes flame Ava Gardner, Jude Law as a brawling Errol Flynn, Alec Baldwin as Pan Am head Juan Trippe and especially Alan Alda as Trippe's devious pet senator, Ralph Owen Brewster.

Technically the film is a masterpiece from start to finish, with Robert Richardson's cinematography perfectly capturing a bygone era. He even delivers some scenes in a kind of faded Kodacolor where greens have turned blue and reds pink.

Scorsese masterfully orchestrates all this and, especially in the Hollywood sequences, achieves an operatic superrealism. Given the bigger-than-life figures on display, it makes perfect sense.

The Aviator's drawbacks are that it's long and features a central character whose inner life was a mystery, even to those who thought they knew him. DiCaprio nails the outer Hughes, losing his boyish image as the character drifts deeper into delusion. Getting a handle on the soul inside proves a bit more difficult.

Nevertheless, The Aviator celebrates film's possibilities with a joy and confidence that comes only from a cast, writer and director at the top of their powers. It'll join the list of American classics.

Other films in the series “Up, Up, and Away!”

July 24 is Amelia Earhart Day, honoring the woman aviator who set records in the 1930s and disappeared attempting an around-the-globe flight. In honor of that famous native of Atchison, Kansas, the Library is offering a film series about other real-life aviators.

Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:


Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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