The Catholicism in Martin Scorsese’s films involves much more than crucifixes on the walls of his Italian-American characters. It lies at the heart of the conflicts faced by his tragic heroes. These are men (sic) who because of their own actions find themselves separated from the community that gives them sustenance. Their “excommunication” places them on a trajectory toward loneliness, the cruelest form of spiritual annihilation. His characteristic storyline reworks the traditional Catholic themes of sin and potential redemption, of grace offered and rejected or, on rare occasion, accepted.
In Scorsese’s most interesting work, the tragic hero exercises free will and becomes an active agent in bringing about this rupture from his community. He is a sinner, who faces isolation as a consequence of his sin. Henry Hull (Ray Liotta) in “Goodfellas” (1990) defies the Mob by going into the drug business on his own, and then to avoid jail, he turns informer. As a result, he ends his days in a hellish witness-protection program, without family, his old friends or even his own name. Jake LaMotta (Robert DeNiro) in “Raging Bull” (1980) is driven by a mad impulse to go it alone to prove he can survive all the violence his opponents in the ring and in the world throw at him. Friends, his brother and his wife become potential adversaries, and one by one he alienates each with his self-centered paranoia. In the final scene, he sits totally alone in a dressing room preparing to do a comedy act for which he has demonstrated very, very little talent. Even Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver” (1976), deranged as he was, executes a carefully crafted plan to liberate a child-prostitute (Jodie Foster) by killing the men who profited from her work. In the final scene he rides alone in his taxicab without any prospects for home or family. Through their actions, these tragic figures become architects of their own downfall.
The Aviator provides another installment in Scorsese’s lifelong fascination with alienation from a life-sustaining community. It is dramatically and theologically weaker than his earlier treatments of the subject simply because Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) suffers from a gradually worsening psychopathology. A victim of his illness, he lacks the free will to make choices that direct his future and lead to his isolation. In his lucid moments, Hughes makes brilliant and bold business decisions, but he stands powerless before the onslaught of the obsessive-compulsive disorder that destroys his personal life. Like Jake LaMotta, the character of Howard Hughes is based on a real person. But LaMotta’s story provokes horror as he orchestrates his own destruction; Hughes’s merely pity as he founders helplessly before a progressing mental illness.
Howard Hughes arrives in Hollywood as a loner, an outsider determined to become an insider. In the end, because of his madness, he shuts out everyone. In Texas, the family had amassed a fortune manufacturing oil-drilling equipment. Speculators run risks, but dry well or gusher, Hughes senior made money. When his father dies, Howard takes his checkbook to California to pursue the three equally erotic drives in his life: beautiful women, airplanes and the movies. In Hollywood, he can combine all three. The making of his first film, “Hell’s Angels,” reveals the compulsive streak in his personality. He assembles his own air force, delays shooting until the clouds are perfect and personally supervises the technical details of planes and cameras alike. Before his film is released, “The Jazz Singer” introduces sound, and Hughes re-shoots the entire film for the new medium. At the time it was the most expensive movie ever made. With his money, he can afford to date the most beautiful actresses, like Jean Harlow, but he can’t pass up the opportunity to seduce an awe-struck cigarette girl in a nightclub. Ever afraid of being alone, Hughes uses his wealth to buy companionship. In his search for a new relationship, he interviews a very young Faith Demerque (Kelli Garner) as though he were auditioning her for a role in a movie. He is as compulsive in his behavior with women as he is with his movies and his airplanes.
The quirks in his personality seem at first puzzling and then frightening. Hughes pays little attention to financial manipulations involving millions and entrusts the running of his empire to Noah Dietrich (John C. Reilly), whom he hires on a first meeting. He does not want to be bothered with details, like buying an airline or mortgaging his business to the brink of bankruptcy to assemble a fleet of untested aircraft for it, but he pores over blueprints and badgers his engineers to reduce the drag caused by protruding rivets. When Hughes flies his own planes, he bypasses test pilots and disregards engineers at great risk to both the aircraft and his own life. He is driven to do everything himself, and even when he is doing what he does best, he is foolhardy, to put it gently or, to put it more accurately, suicidal.
Hughes’s hypochondria drives him relentlessly into his own shell. In the opening scene, as a young child, he stands in a basin as his mother bathes him. The scene is vaguely erotic, and perhaps helps explain Hughes’s later problems in relating to women. She warns him about the dangers of cholera, still common in rural Texas at the time. By the time he arrives in California, he shows a now fashionable concern for his health. In the Cocoanut Grove, he asks for milk in an unopened bottle. Later, he will specify the size and location of the chocolate chips in the cookies he orders, and finally he demands that food be brought to him in paper bags held at an angle that allows him to reach inside without touching the bag itself. Fearing germs, he burns his clothes and tapes off germ-free zones in his filthy apartment. As the film nears its third hour, the character collapses from the inside, like one of those huge inflated cartoon characters in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade being deflated at day’s end.
In this film, as in his earlier ones, Scorsese revels in a Catholic sense of ritual and sacrament. With the solemnity of a sacred rite, Hughes opens a case of his special soap and washes his hands until they bleed. In his cluttered candle-lit sanctuary, he collects his own urine in milk bottles and arranges them lovingly in a line that covers the length of the wide screen. He bathes and vests as if purifying himself for solemn rituals.
Much to his credit, Scorsese continues to experiment with films that take his audiences far beyond his familiar street life in New York. But in “The Aviator” he simply tries too many things at once. He couples the splendid action sequences of plane crashes with a screwball comedy interlude of Hughes’s affair with Katherine Hepburn, played by Cate Blanchett doing a wonderful verbal caricature of Hepburn, who always seemed to be doing a caricature of herself. Hughes meets her Connecticut family, and their dinner conversation degenerates into a clash of cultures that rivals Bush-meets-Kerry as perceived by Kansas voters. The last third of the film meanders through corporate intrigues as Hughes tries to gain overseas routes for T.W.A., after Juan Tripp (Alec Baldwin) of Pan-Am had secured exclusive rights with the collusion of Sen. Owen Brewster (Alan Alda). What holds the interest during these legal shenanigans is Hughes’s pendulum-swings between moments of brilliant argumentation and lapses into babbling, repetitive incoherence. One is never quite sure which Howard Hughes will appear in public to argue his case.
Martin Scorsese and his screenwriter John Logan aptly chose the title, “The Aviator.” This film is about flying, all kinds of flying: dangerous stunt flying, scientific test flying, romantic flying over Hollywood with Hepburn at the controls. And flying provides the controlling metaphor for Hughes’s life. He was not content to stroll through life earthbound; he was destined to soar to places and at speeds lesser men dared not attempt; and like Icarus of myth, he dared fly too high. Approaching the sun in his pride, his wings of wax melted and he fell into the sea. In the final sequence, Hughes tries to fly his enormous eight-engine wooden flying boat, the Hercules, known to a mocking world as the Spruce Goose. It does not go far or fly very high, but it does get off the ground, and that is all that matters. Scorsese admires the vision and the effort even more than the achievement. Perhaps the same could be said about Scorsese and his oversized film. He tried to do something different on a huge scale. The miracle is that it gets off the ground at all, even if it doesn’t fly very far.