[Marxism] The Aviator

Louis Proyect 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.

Louis Proyect
Marxism list: www.marxmail.org 

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