A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
Howard Hughes in his last two decades sealed himself away from the world. At first he haunted a penthouse in Las Vegas, and then he moved to a bungalow behind the Beverly Hills Hotel. He was the world's richest man, and with his billions bought himself a room he never left.
In a sense, his life was a journey to that lonely room. But he took the long way around: As a rich young man from Texas, the heir to his father's fortune, he made movies, bought airlines, was a playboy who dated Hollywood's famous beauties. If he had died in one of the airplane crashes he survived, he would have been remembered as a golden boy. Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator" wisely focuses on the glory years, although we can see the shadows falling, and so can Hughes. Some of the film's most harrowing moments show him fighting his demons; he knows what is normal and sometimes it seems almost within reach.
"The Aviator" celebrates Scorsese's zest for finding excitement in a period setting, re-creating the kind of glamor he heard about when he was growing up. It is possible to imagine him wanting to be Howard Hughes. Their lives, in fact, are even a little similar: Heedless ambition and talent when young, great early success, tempestuous romances and a dark period, although with Hughes it got darker and darker, while Scorsese has emerged into the full flower of his gifts.
The movie achieves the difficult feat of following two intersecting story arcs, one in which everything goes right for Hughes and the other in which everything goes wrong. Scorsese chronicled similar life patterns in "GoodFellas," "Raging Bull," "The King of Comedy," "Casino," actually even "The Last Temptation of Christ." Leonardo DiCaprio is convincing in his transitions between these emotional weathers; playing madness is a notorious invitation to overact, but he shows Hughes contained, even trapped, within his secrets, able to put on a public act even when his private moments are desperate.