Release Date:  December 17, 2004
Rating:  PG-13 (for language)
Genre:   Drama/Adventure/Romance
Run Time: 2 hrs. 49 min.
Director:   Martin Scorsese
Actors:   Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, John C. Reilly,

Have you ever gone to an Impressionist exhibit and wondered what the artist was trying to say?  You recognize the subject, but it looks strangely … different.  Much like this year’s other iconic biopic, “Ray,” “The Aviator” is like that.  It’s not the most accurate representation of Howard Hughes’ life, and it certainly misses many defining facts, but it gets at the essence of who he was.

After a brief prologue during which an adolescent Hughes receives a sponge bath by a leering mother who warns him that he will never be safe, the film opens in 1927.  Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) is 21 and has inherited the wealth of his millionaire Texan father, founder of Hughes Tools.  He is spending most of that money, it appears, on a movie about WWI called “Hell’s Angels” – much to the amusement of the Hollywood studio players, who have yet to grasp the concept of independent filmmaking.  Four years and several million dollars later, Hughes arrives at his premiere with his new star, Rita Hayworth (Gwen Stefani), and basks in the glory of box office profits.  During the next 20 years, Hughes makes several other films and beds countless women, including live-in love Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale).  He also seduces teenage girls (including one 15-year-old, who reportedly received the full blessing of her parents.)

Not content to rest on the laurels of cinematic achievements, Hughes designs airplanes as well – another endeavor that is mocked before becoming a huge success.  Despite the fact that he has no formal education in engineering, he makes gigantic strides in the aviation industry, inventing prototype planes and breaking Charles Lindbergh’s record by flying around the world in less than four days.  To the immense frustration of Pan-Am Airlines owner Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin, in an excellent performance), Hughes also buys rival Trans-World Airlines, turns the company around and plows ahead with plans for the world’s first transport plane.

But the tremendous success of Hughes’ professional life could not stop the encroachment of his personal demons, which leads him to fear germs of any kind and ultimately, to cloister himself, naked, for months on end.  Toward the end of the film, in his early 40s, he is hauled into public hearings by Senator Owen Brewster (a chillingly evil Alan Alda), Trippe’s puppet.  There, Hughes defends himself against felony charges and once again comes out on top.  Finally, having sworn to make his transport plane fly, Hughes takes the gargantuan “Spruce Goose,” as it was affectionately known, to the Los Angeles harbor, where all of America watches as it take to the skies.

In many ways, “The Aviator” is a large-scale biopic that deserves praise.  Director Martin Scorsese (“Gangs of New York”) has chosen to represent a slice of Hughes’ life, and he does it engagingly – despite some significant omissions.  The cinematography is exceptional, particularly in the way that it matches the different periods.  Grainy sepia tones are used for the early sequences from 1927 to 1930, while bright vivid colors highlight the Jazz Age of the ‘30s and ‘40s.  The costumes and the sets are all stunning, giving you the sense of being transported back in time.  And the scene where Hughes crashes into a Hollywood neighborhood, burning 78 percent of his body, is harrowing and masterfully done through a combination of real stunts and CGI.