January 18, 2005 -- In The Aviator, a biopic about Howard Hughes (1905-1976) starring Leonardo DiCaprio with script by John Logan, director Martin Scorsese projects on the screen a moral message that is rarely found in philosophy books, much less in movies: The path to joy in life is loving one's work. Scorsese portrays Hughes as a true, can-do American pioneer and visionary in both the motion picture and aeronautics industries, who fights the forces of censorship in the one realm and government control in the other.
Elements of The Aviator find their closest parallel in the novels of Ayn Rand . Although Scorsese does show us the tragedy of Hughes' mental illness, he does not do so at the expense of Hughes's heroism.
The film opens with a young Hughes in the late 1920s using two dozen cameras and the largest private air force in the country to make the ultimate World War I film, Hell's Angels. But when he sees The Jazz Singer, the first motion picture with sound, he dips into his own inherited fortune to reshoot most of his movie using the new technology. Howard Hughes's goal in making the movie was to see it made his way, to reflect his own ideas of drama and excitement, just as the goal of architect Howard Roark in Rand 's The Fountainhead was to design each building "for the purpose of seeing it erected as I designed it." After years of shooting and a $4 million price tag—a true fortune at that time—Hughes's blockbuster opened to rave reviews.
But Scorsese shows us that Hughes's true love is aviation. Like a Randian hero, Hughes is enamored of technology. He is involved in every aspect of the design, development, and testing of the products of his company. Hughes is the ultimate problem solver. When a TWA official tells him there might be a problem with the airline purchasing his new planes, Hughes finds an easy solution: He buys TWA. Between designing and buying companies, Hughes takes time out to break the round-the-world flight record, taking off and landing in New York in four days.
Scorsese shows us Hughes's romance with actress Katharine Hepburn beginning in a way that suggests a true integration of the pleasures of the mind and body. Hughes takes Kate on a flight over Los Angeles in one of his planes and lets her pilot it. Kate's exhilaration matches his own, and they soon land on his estate and in his bed. This scene recalls the scene from Rand's Atlas Shrugged in which Dagny Taggart, who has built a new line for her railroad, rides in a train’s engine on its first run on a track and over a bridge made of a new super-metal with its inventor, Hank Rearden. The exhilaration and lack of any mind-body dichotomy in their souls lead them to a sexual celebration of their achievements.
Scorsese portrays the relationship in Hughes's soul between romance and work in a scene in which Howard is making love to Hepburn. We see a close-up of his hand moving along her back as the scene seamlessly switches to his hand moving along the body of a plane to make certain that the rivets are flush against the fuselage in order to reduce wind resistance. For Hughes, both are sensual pleasures.
Scorsese shows us that Hughes does not suffer lightly the limousine-liberals of his day who want him to feel ashamed of his love for his work. Hepburn takes Hughes, Texas accent and all, to brunch with her aristocratic Connecticut family at their estate. Kate's relatives tell Hughes that they are a kind of art colony and that "we're all socialists here." Around the table, Kate's mom worries that Hughes is snickering at the mention of President Roosevelt (he's actually being licked by the dog). When asked if he reads, Hughes answers yes, trade journals on engineering. One pompous diner retorts, "We read books." Hughes's eyes light up as he excitedly begins to explain his latest work and business activities. But the diners quickly turn to inane small talk among themselves. When Kate's mom remarks, "We don't care about money," Hughes retorts that this is because they have always had it and that some people choose to work for a living. He then excuses himself to attend to some airplane business.
The only scene in art comparable to Scorsese's is found in Atlas Shrugged. Steel entrepreneur Rearden has spent ten years developing his revolutionary new metal. This man, who is in love with his own work and his new creation, is dying to share his excitement and joy with someone, but his family, wealthy guests at their parties, and pseudo-intellectual courtiers want none of it, believing that one must wash business from one's mind the way one would wash machine grease from one's hands before coming home. Rand and Scorsese both portray the cynical souls of those who consider themselves too sophisticated to appreciate greatness.
In one amusing scene, Scorsese blends Hughes's various loves. We assume from the dialog about thrust and lift that Hughes is speaking with his engineers about aircraft until he shows them a blueprint of a new bra he has designed especially for the very buxom Jane Russell, whom he has cast in his next movie, The Outlaw. When the censorship board proposes to ban his film as indecent, Hughes unveils before them poster-size photos of the "assets" of a half-dozen other starlets and asks the shocked science professor in his employ to explain how the ratios of their mammaries are not really different from Ms. Russell's.
On a serious note Scorsese demonstrates moral insights worthy of Rand but rarely found in political and business circles today. Hughes's nemesis is PanAm owner Juan Trippe who is paying off Sen. Ralph Brewster to push through legislation to grant Trippe's airline a legal monopoly for all international flights, thus knocking Hughes's TWA out of business. Brewster has the FBI regularly searching Hughes's office to dig up dirt. In a private meeting, Sen. Brewster threatens to reveal this dirt and subject him to a congressional investigation if Hughes does not support the PanAm monopoly and sell TWA to PanAm. He tells Hughes that the government has just beat Germany and Japan and certainly can beat him. Hughes tells Brewster to tell Trippe to kiss his ass.
At the hearings, Brewster brands Hughes as a war profiteer who stole from the American people even as our boys were dying on the beaches of Normandy. The senator asks Hughes if it is true that 1) the government paid him $56 million to develop the FX-11 spy plane and the huge transport, a "flying boat" named the Hercules, and 2) that Hughes never delivered those aircraft. Hughes answers, "Yes," but then, rather than apologizing, demonstrates the difference between what Rand called the moneymaker and the wealth expropriator.
Hughes observes that the government had paid out perhaps a billion dollars to many companies for experimental projects that, in the end, did not deliver. Why, then, was Brewster picking on Hughes? Hughes turns the tables on Brewster, branding him as a paid agent of Trippe; when Brewster denies Hughes's charge that he tried to blackmail him, Hughes labels him a liar before the packed hearing room and TV cameras. Hughes, the moneymaker, will not play along with corrupt wealth appropriating politicians and businessmen. This is reminiscent of the attempted trial of Rearden in Atlas Shrugged for selling his own products to customers at prices of his choosing. He will not help the court pretend that they are doing anything but trying to steal his products. He brands them as what they are and refuses to give them moral sanction. Scorsese and Rand both show the consequences of mixing politics and business.
Even more importantly, Hughes observes in the hearings that he put his own money into the planes he was developing for the government because "aviation is the great love of my life." Indeed, Scorsese shows us that Hughes not only risks his own money but his own life in pursuit of that love. Testing a prototype of the FX-11 himself, he is seriously injured in a crash that leaves him scarred for life.
But risk is part of the pursuit of what he loves. The Hercules, called by its critics the "Spruce Goose," is a plane Hughes "put his heart into." When he cannot get aluminum for the plane because of government war rationing, he decides to build this, the world's largest plane, mostly out of wood. Because Hughes had said that if that plane couldn't fly, he would leave the country, he does take it for one quick flight around Long Beach harbor.
Scorsese also treats the tragic side of Hughes's life, his obsessive-compulsive disorder. Hughes is a germophobe, constantly washing his hands and later burning his clothes and staying in dark rooms away from people. When the condition hits him full force, he repeats words like a broken record. Scorcese might have shown this condition arising from the same source as Hughes's greatness, suggesting that all heroes are merely deranged. He doesn't. At the beginning of The Aviator, he shows Hughes's mother bathing him, teaching him to spell "quarantine" and telling him about the dangers of germs. It is questionable pop psychology to suggest that his mother drove him to his breakdowns. But rather than diminishing his achievements as too many directors would do today if they even dared to treat such an individual,
Scorsese presents Hughes as a heroic innovator and lover of his own work who suffers from a tragic illness.
In a biopic, directors necessarily pick and choose parts of their subject's life to emphasize what they see as the essence of the individual. We can appreciate the spirit of Howard Hughes as Scorsese portrays him and hope that the moral lessons that Scorsese presents find their way into the hearts of all true individualists.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.