The other night I watched Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator for the first time since seeing it in theaters in 2004. I was struck by how good it was, much better than I remember it being when I originally saw it. This is Scorsese’s account of the life of Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio).
I seem to remember it mostly for its first half hour, of when it gives a kind of synopsis treatment of early Hollywood. It seems the work of a lesser filmmaker, tying to recreate a historical moment, without providing us any kind of insight into the actual moment. It looks good, but it is emotionally empty. The first section of the film almost plays more like a music video than a fully realized film with strong characters.
However, once Scorsese really starts showing us the struggle behind Hughes’s outward can-do facade, the movie really starts to become interesting. You start realizing that the same things that allow Hughes to succeed are the same things that will eventually destroy him. Hughes struggles with an extreme case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. This personality trait drives him to be a perfectionist in the world of aviation and film, cause him to later be a shut-in that can no longer function in any kind of normal capacity.
That the film doesn’t adhere to the normal biographical film structure is a huge plus. Scorsese is too smart for this. The final shot, which leaves the viewer with a shot of Hughes obsessively repeating a phrase makes the film depart on a haunted note, that hints at what is to come, while leaving just enough ambiguity to make it work as symbolism rather than just strict biography. Although Scorsese provides viewers with a possible explanation for Hughes’s insanity, he never overplays this hand either, not allowing simplification of the mystery of the human condition.
If the film follows any traditional narrative it is that of the classic tragedy, where the hero’s strengths are exactly what destroy him. Before the last moments of the film, the hero’s strengths allow him to rise for one final triumph.
Although Hughes’s demons are largely the result of a inner struggle, the film also seems to be commenting on how society tries to destroy the dreamer. Hughes dreams bigger and bolder than everyone around him and for the mundane everyday nature of commerce and bureaucracy try to bring him down. We like to tell ourselves the narrative that we reward hard work and bold ideas, but we really only reward those a great deal of the time if they fall within a pre-established order. If someone doesn’t kneel before the powers-that-be, those powers, which have the backing of the majority, will try attain retribution.
It’s also interesting that the very things that Hughes struggles with, outside of his own personal demons, are the same thing that haunts our society today, which is the unholy alliance of big business and government. When big business is allowed to corrupt our government, the results are not only bad for the individual, but for society at large. When we look at the freak power that is now the Republican party, we see these forces at work in our own time. In a way this film is not only an interesting character study, but timely as well.