[Marxism] The Aviator
lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Dec 18 12:00:39 MST 2004
Despite Screenwriter John Logan and Director Martin Scorsese's best
intentions, "The Aviator" is very much like the "Spruce Goose" of the
film's climax: a lumbering, ill-conceived mess. Since they apparently
didn't understand the true story of the white elephant seaplane that is
represented as a soaring engineering achievement, it should come as no
surprise that they would get nearly everything else wrong about Howard
Hughes. Not only do they truncate the biography of this paradigm of
American capitalism, leaving out the tawdry details of his dealings with
the CIA and his various corporate crimes throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s;
they also airbrush and prettify his earlier life to the point where it
amounts to a lie.
The idea for this biopic came from Leonard DiCaprio, who plays Howard
Hughes. Despite having progressive politics, especially on ecology (see
<http://www.leonardodicaprio.org/>http://www.leonardodicaprio.org/), he was
unwilling to see Hughes in his proper historical context. DiCaprio was only
interested in the man's speed fixation, his desire for privacy and his
psychological quirks. Furthermore, John Logan turns Hughes into a kind of a
libertarian hero after the fashion of Ayn Rand.
Despite his willingness to expose all the personal tics and foibles of this
very odd subspecies of the American bourgeoisie, it is obvious that Logan
and everybody else associated with this project want the audience to cheer
for Howard Hughes at the end of this film. We have come a very long way
from the days of "Citizen Kane."
If anything, Scorsese seems intent on making the same kind of film that
another cutting-edge Italian-American director made a while back. Francis
Ford Coppola's 1998 "Tucker" is a biopic of Preston Tucker, an auto
manufacturer whose visionary plans for a car with safety belts and other
features unheard of in Detroit at the time were shot down by hidebound,
reactionary enemies in the business class. At the time, critic Roger Ebert
said that you get no sense of what made Tucker tick. He, like Scorsese's
Howard Hughes, is seen from the outside. Ebert also said that it was hard
to avoid the impression that Coppola saw himself in Preston Tucker, who was
also a kind of genius thwarted by lesser mortals.
With Howard Hughes, the parallels are even more obvious since his career
began as a film-maker. Referring to Hughes's "Hell's Angels," a film about
WWI aviators, Scorsese told the Telegraph: "He was a cocky guy and he
bucked the system in terms of independent film
" In other words, he was a
"The Aviator" begins with the making of this film. It is a fairly accurate
in terms of showing the young Howard Hughes's overweening ambitions to make
the ultimate film about air war. He is seen as the ultimate risk-taker who
proves his detractors wrong, especially Noah Dietrich (John C. Reilly), who
he had hired to run Hughes Tool. Dietrich warns him that mounting expenses
might bankrupt the company his father founded and which was the source of
his unlimited wealth. Scorsese depicts the film's premiere as a triumph of
the plucky young producer/director. What the film covers up is the fact
that the film actually lost $1.5 million, an immense sum in 1930.
Nor does the film dramatize the death of mechanic Phil Jones, who was
strapped to a spinning plane and instructed to operate smoke pots to give
the impression of a burning plane. Pilots working in the film warned that
this was too dangerous. They were correct. Jones missed a cue to parachute
from the spinning plane and fell to his death in a plowed field. Hughes was
all to willing to take risks, but with other peoples' expense apparently.
(The account of Jones's death and other factual corrections in this review
are drawn from Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele's "Howard Hughes: His
Life and Madness." Bartlett and Steele might also be known to you as the
authors of "America: What Went Wrong" and other critiques of American
society. In other words, they are the perfect biographers for a subject
like Howard Hughes.)
True to biopic traditions, "The Aviator" dwells on Hughes's romances with
movie stars like Katherine Hepburn and Ava Gardner. Hepburn is played by
Cate Blanchett in one of the most ill-conceived performances in recent film
history. Anybody who has seen Hepburn in film will be startled by
Blanchett's braying and repellent version of the actress, which evokes
Martin Short's impersonation of her on the old Saturday Night Live more
than anything else.
It serves to establish a contrast between the crude but honest Hughes
character and the liberal phonies in Hollywood he must have had to put up with.
In a pivotal scene, Hughes is invited out to the Connecticut estate of
Hepburn's blueblood, liberal parents. At a dinner party there, they appear
as repulsive as the Sean Penn marionette in this year's "Team America."
Speaking down to Hughes, they spout slogan after slogan about the
downtrodden poor. Before leaving in a huff, he tells them that they can't
know anything about money because they were born into it. He, on the other
hand, would have ostensibly worked for every penny he ever made. Since
Howard Hughes was an heir to his father's fortune, this confrontation does
not quite ring true.
All in all, the dialog between Hughes and Hepburn's family is a lost
opportunity. A more gifted screenwriter would have drawn a more nuanced
contrast, but since Logan's past work includes "The Gladiator" and "The
Last Samurai," such hopes would be misplaced. Ultimately the romance
between the two characters does not come alive, because we really don't
know who Hughes is. Logan is content to paint a rather opaque figure, who
only is energized and demonstrative when behind the steering wheel of an
The dramatic heart of the movie involves a confrontation between Hughes and
Maine Senator Owen Brewster, who was conducting an investigation into
Hughes Aircraft and war profiteering in 1947. Brewster, played by Alan
Alda, serves as the film's villain. We discover that Brewer's main
motivation is to thwart Hughes's ambition to fly his TWA airliners to
Europe in order to compete with Pan American airlines. Juan Trippe,
Pan-Am's president, is played by Alec Baldwin as a smooth-talking,
aristocratic Yankee against the rough-hewn but honest Howard Hughes. Trippe
has made substantial campaign contributions to Brewster in an effort to
line up his support against any challenges to Pan Am's monopolistic ambitions.
One has to wonder about the casting of Alan Alda and Alec Baldwin in these
roles. Both are high-profile liberals in Hollywood. I doubt that Scorsese,
Logan and DiCaprio sat down and made casting decisions based on this
criterion, but nevertheless it serves the political subtext of the film
willy-nilly. That subtext entails the clash of the risk-taking entrepreneur
and the meddling forces of big government.
This is an absurd construction since Howard Hughes's rise to the richest
man in the world in 1966 was marked all along the line by exactly the same
kinds of influence-peddling. He was the ultimate insider who lavished huge
campaign contributions on the likes of Richard Nixon in exchange for favors
for his various corporations. No wonder the makers of "The Aviator" decided
to end their story in the late 1940s. The truth about Howard Hughes's later
career was far too inconvenient.
The film concludes with DiCaprio at the helm of the Hercules, an immense
wooden seaplane that was intended to carry war material to Europe during
the war, hence evading submarine attacks. This supposedly vindicated Howard
Hughes, whose idea for such a huge plane was derided by men with limited
What the film fails to establish is that the idea for the Hercules (leaving
aside its ultimate viability) came from ship-builder Henry Kaiser rather
than Hughes. In 1942, Kaiser was dismayed that hundreds of ships were being
sunk in the Atlantic by German submarines. In the summer of that year, he
came up with a solution. A fleet of giant flying boats would guarantee the
safe delivery of men and supplies to Europe. Long before Hughes entered the
picture, newspapers were hailing the prospects of Kaiser's flying boats.
The Philadelphia Inquirer referred to "Flying Freighters--The Ship of the
Future Will Fly Over the Ocean if the Nation Accepts Henry Kaiser's
When Kaiser approached Hughes in August of 1942 with the idea, he
discovered the younger man to be frail and exhausted. Hughes told the
effusive Kaiser, "I am very tired. I haven't had any sleep... Besides,
you're crazy." After a couple of days, Kaiser was able to cajole Hughes
into accepting his proposal. Perhaps Scorsese should have made a movie
about Henry J. Kaiser instead.
Kaiser's trust in Howard Hughes was misplaced. In 1942, Hughes Aircraft was
little more than a boutique for bringing one or another of its president's
hobbyhorses to fruition, but not under the kinds of pressure other
companies faced--especially during wartime. It employed only a few hundred
people and was run by cronies of Howard Hughes. Neil S. McCarthy, who was
in charge of the company, was a Hollywood lawyer and horse-racing
enthusiast, who had represented Hughes in past dealings in the film
industry. He knew nothing about aviation. It is no wonder that the Hercules
only flew two years after the war was over, with men like this in charge.
Hughes himself was hardly to be seen most days, preferring to spend his
time in Las Vegas with showgirls.
(Hughes Aircraft eventually turned into a powerhouse by supplying
high-technology communications and missiles to the Air Force in the 1950s.
At the time, the company was under the leadership of much more qualified
people. Hughes had evidently learned from his mistakes.)
If the creators of the "The Aviator" had really immersed themselves in
Howard Hughes's biography, it is surprising that they did not abandon this
project at the outset, especially Martin Scorsese who is supposedly
fiercely committed to the independence of film-making.
In the early 1950s, Hughes had gotten involved in the film industry once
again. As head of RKO, he was turning out pure schlock like his earlier
work. Yet despite the inferior quality of films like the 1943 "The Outlaw,"
he would appear at first blush to be strongly protective of artistic
freedom. A key scene in "The Aviators" depicts Hughes standing up to the
censors over his right to show Jane Russell's cleavage in this forgettable
Unfortunately, Hughes did not believe that leftists should enjoy the same
kinds of freedoms. In 1951, just as the witch-hunt was gathering steam,
Hughes fired Paul Jarrico who was hired to write the screenplay for "The
Las Vegas Story," an RKO film. Jarrico had been subpoenaed by HUAC to
testify about Communist subversion in Hollywood. Bill Gay, one of many
Mormons hired by Hughes to look after his affairs, said, "He felt that
communism versus free enterprise was such an important issue in our time.
[It was] one of the few issues in his life he felt that strongly about."
(This is cited in Barlett and Steele.)
Not satisfied with firing Jarrico, Hughes next went after Charlie Chaplin.
In 1953, RKO decided that they would ban "Limelight" after HUAC and the
American Legion put pressure on movie theaters. In the case of RKO, this
was like trying to break down a wide-open door.
Shortly after his triumph in ensuring a smaller audience for Chaplin's
first movie in 5 years, Hughes and other red-baiters ganged up on "Salt of
the Earth," a movie about New Mexico strikers made by Jarrico, Herbert J.
Biberman and other blacklistees. In a letter to Representative Donald
Jackson, Hughes solidarized himself with the film's banning and suggested a
check-list for weeding out such subversive films in the future:
"[to] prevent this motion picture from being completed and spread all over
the world as a representative product of the United States, then the
industry . . . needs only to do the following:
"Be alert to the situation.
"Investigate thoroughly each applicant for the use of services or equipment.
"Refuse to assist the Bibermans and Jarricos in the making of this picture.
"Be on guard against work submitted by dummy corporations or third parties.
"Appeal to the Congress and the State Department to act immediately to
prevent the export of this film to Mexico or anywhere else."
It is singularly disappointing that people like Martin Scorsese would
commemorate such an enemy of freedom in the name of freedom.
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