The Aviator is a version of the life of Howard Hughes, billionaire, American aviating pioneer, controversial moviemaker, flamboyant playboy, eccentric germophobe and - what the film doesn't touch upon - a nest for several of the CIA's covert and mostly illegal operations, a man who wet his beak in too many deals that would please the underworld, and a friend and employer of several people who'd put their careers, their money, their physical well-being, their second cars, their flower vases, their paperweights and everything else we've missed here, ahead of their country.
In many ways, The Aviator shows as someone deserving of your sympathy, a man you'd normally tell your kids to stay away from. It takes enormous creative licenses completely distorting several important facts that could make material difference to the way that the person is perceived. It's surprising that it has 11 Academy Award nominations.
The films starts by showing a prodigious Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) at 21, inheritor of millions and willing to spend it. It shows him investing an unprecedented amount of money ($4m) into his first foray into Hollywood, Hell's Angels, a path-breaking war film that in reality lost $1.5m at the box-office despite the acclaim it won. The film portrays it as a money-spinner.
An exceptionally cocksure pioneer and an intrepid visionary, Hughes picks from his experiments with aircraft in the movie to get into building them, and bigger and bigger. He also doesn't use his money and charm for easy kill even though he has women for the pick - he goes on to date some of Hollywood's choosiest women: Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) who gets more press than him and would like it that way with his attention, Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale) who "cannot be bought", and Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani) who needed neither his money nor his fame. (The film shows them as following one another, though Ava Gardner came in much later.)
Hughes is already married when he enters Hollywood, but that isn't referred to in all the tumultuous romances. The film follows him as he builds better and better aircraft, buys his own airline, dates and loses Hollywood divas, and slowly succumbs to what we now refer to as Obsessive Compulsive Disorders - in his case, a fear of germs. He uses all the money he has to lock himself up in a penthouse sealed away from his microscopic nemeses, in sequences done movingly. He emerges briefly to take on a Senate hearing investigating war profiteering and tax crimes by him, and rises to the occasion, winning the battle against both the Senator and Pan Am, his arch-rival.
The film rides high on the back of a vibrant performance by DiCaprio, who brings to life the reckless spirit of Hughes. The first half shows the glitter of the old Hollywood and pulsates with the vivacity of the man in his prime, but as it moves into the second half (this is a 165-minute film), factual licenses abound, and it becomes more of a film.
For example, the film ends in 1947 with Hughes almost losing it, while Hughes in reality lived till 1976, did a lot more including selling TWA and buying RKO studios, buying off Presidents, and hobnobbing with and hiring the underworld, and most of his illness was in the last 2 decades of his life. And as as we already noted, he was no more an American patriot
than Don Juan - his only charity, the Hughes Medical Institute that he created, was allegedly primarily an instrument to save taxes on his business, and survived a bitter fued with the IRS.
Cate Blanchett has the challenging role to play of a woman who won a record 4 Oscars and who was eccentric in her own way, and while it would take a Hollywood commentator to aver on Blanchett being Hepburn, she's certainly impressive. All performances are honest, and the visuals are grand and on luxuriant scale.
The Hyderabadi is not generally up for films with 11 Oscar nominations for primarily their scripts and performances, and this is not likely to last any more than a couple of weeks.