Why did Howard Hughes lose his mind?

Perhaps it was caused by the long hours that he spent editing his own movies in that darkened, private screening room. Hughes sat watching the reels of his multi-million dollar movie Hell’s Angels over and over and over again, ruthlessly seeking out what did and didn’t work. He wanted to achieve perfection, and fix all broken things. Perhaps this was a sort of compensation, a way of making up for those things he could not repair or improve about himself.

And finally, like a projector that gets stuck in a repeating loop, something busted in his brain. He found himself repeating a phrase during a conversation–repeating it ceaselessly, compulsively, unable to stop.

In most movies about crackpots, the person going mad doesn’t seem to realize what’s happening to him. What turns Martin Scorsese’s film The Aviator from a comedy into a horror film is that Hughes seems fully aware of his freight-train life derailing and plunging into an abyss. In moments where he falls into the repeating loop, he clamps his hand over his mouth to stop the madness, all but bashing his own brains out to get that needle unstuck from its groove, unable to scream because he’s too busy talking nonsense.

If only his speech defect were the biggest problem. The Aviator portrays a man who skyrockets to fame and fortune while demonstrating poor judgment on every front… and on the sides as well. Scorsese seems to admire some of this misbehavior as much as he is terrified by other aspects, and thus his film ends up glorifying a self-indulgent braggart, a womanizer, a reckless spender, an egomaniacal fool.

Does that mean The Aviator is a waste of time? Oh no. The film’s strengths are impressive indeed, enough to deserve the film a place on any critic’s Ten Best of 2004 list.

But it must also be noted that Scorsese, clearly dazzled by Hughes’ sensational success, seems insufficiently concerned with anything, or anyone, beyond Hughes and his reckless dreams.

Leonardo DiCaprio, in the first role worthy of his sensational talent since he appeared as a kid in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, brings Hughes to vivid life. It’s a pedal-to-the-metal performance, in which DiCaprio’s teen-boy voice works to his advantage, accentuating Hughes’ boyish impulses and his inability to grasp the complexities of the grownup world. We buy Hughes’ intensity, his jumps (no, leaps) to conclusions, and finally his plunge into insanity. During those terrifying sequences when his train of thought derails, DiCaprio looks like he’s going to sweat blood. He seems to have used his millions and his genius to send a special-ops squad into his head armed with power tools to try and repair broken connections. The portrayal of this disintegration should silence DiCaprio’s critics. The great actor is still there; he’s just been waiting for a character who isn’t a bland romantic hero (Titanic, Gangs of New York).

DiCaprio’s not the only one making a comeback. It appears that Scorsese the Great Director is still alive and well, too. He’s suddenly within reach of his first Oscar, and he deserves it far more for this than for his ambitious-but-flawed Gangs of New York. This is the best-looking picture he’s ever made, and the editing that merges differing chapters, cushioned with bits of newsreel reports, keeps us informed and engaged without ever devolving into mere exposition. The special effects, which bring to life aerial combat scenes from the production of Hughes’ blockbuster film Hell’s Angels and the test flights of innovative airplanes, are a hit-and-miss affair; some of them are awe-inspiring, others seem artificial. But the whole production employs artifice without apology, so that it’s easy to forgive a few unconvincing flourishes of digital animation.

It’s also worth noting that this is the closest thing to a comedy Scorsese has directed since After Hours. You’ll laugh, you’ll fly. If you watch the viewers sitting in front of you in the theatre, you’ll see their hair blown back by the exhilarating (if slightly artificial) stunt-flying scenes, some of which are taken straight from Hughes’ own work. Scenes of rapid-fire dialogue are just as much fun, the cast pushing their characters to the edge of caricature, giving a cartoonish energy to the high-speed storytelling. It’s hard to imagine framing this story as anything but a comedy, since Hughes dared to climb so many staggering peaks, fell into so many pits, and dragged himself back to climb again.

John Logan, who wrote Gladiator, has far surpassed his previous achievements with a script drawn tight as wire, and barbed as well with sharp wit and touches of poetry. It begins in the 1920’s with Hughes’ work on Hell’s Angels, which seems insane even by today’s blockbuster standards. Hughes funds the silent picture himself, driving his colleagues to exhaustion, running far over-budget, and finally completing this controversial project, only to realize that he wants to remake the picture as “a talkie,” which he suddenly realizes is the future of film

“The future.” Hughes is obsessed with it, as if he’s planted one foot in a time two decades forward and, finding this stretch uncomfortable, is desperately trying to drag himself and his present day reality along with him into a new era. Having conquered Hollywood in his mid-20s, he moved on to the world of aviation, purchasing TWA, designing sleek new airplanes with such enthusiasm that it was hard to ignore the rather Freudian implications of such interests. (Hughes was also preoccupied with the female form–primarily their bosoms–and actually confronted the MPAA after they demanded that he edit gratuitous cleavage from his film The Outlaw.)

And speaking of women, Hughes welcomed the opportunities his fame and fortune brought him. Like most rich, powerful visionaries, he didn’t give a second thought to what any Higher Power might think of him; he was happy to bed a long line of glamorous ladies (the film only mentions a few) who pursued him or gave in to his charm.

Of the famous ladies he “courted,” Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani, in a fleeting, one-line appearance) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale, “all dolled up”) made headlines. But the one who played the biggest part in his glamorous life was Katharine Hepburn. The film portrays Hepburn as one who truly, deeply loved him, even as the cracks began to spread through his sanity.

But none of them would be able to compete with Hughes’ one true love–aviation. And the film delights us with Hughes’ brave test-flights of new airplanes … until one of them comes to a famously misguided landing in the middle of Beverly Hills, altering Hughes’ life forever. (This particular sequence, edited brilliantly by Thelma Schoonmaker, will have viewers reaching for their seatbelts and the ushers reaching for the fire extinguishers.)

In the later chapters, as a mid-40s Hughes disintegrates into mental illness, viewers will become more and more impressed with DiCaprio’s work. We admire the Hughes he creates; we care about him; we’re horrified by him; and we’re infuriated with him. This was a man of fantastic dreams and motivating energy, and yet he was also self-absorbed, selfish, and heartless in his relationships with others. The Aviator’s primary flaw is that it becomes too enamored of Hughes without properly  acknowledging the damage he did to the lives of others along the way, the opportunities he overlooked to employ his wealth and talent in more humanitarian ways.

This is a dilemma that will fuel conversations after the film is over. But it is our responsibility to acknowledge when something is done with excellence, and while the script does not raise enough questions about Hughes’ reckless, egomaniacal actions, the rest of the filmmakers involved do excellent work.

Inspired by the energy and drama, the actors revel in their opportunities, and some of them turn in work that stands alongside the best of their careers.

I’ve already praised DiCaprio for finally delivering on the promise he showed in his earliest work. But in spite of his fantastic effort, the movie is stolen out from under him. Cate Blanchett gives such gusto to her turn as Katherine Hepburn that when she walks off the screen, the characters left behind look likely to depart as well, following her in awe. She may not look like Hepburn, but the body language and the verbal bravado are the same. No performance by a supporting actress this year–except perhaps Maia Morgenstern as the unforgettable Mary of The Passion–will burn as brightly in retrospect.

Alan Alda plays Senator Owen Brewster, Hughes’ governmental nemesis, who tries to bring down the Hughes legacy on charges of war profiteering. Alec Baldwin gives menace and a wicked wit to the head of Pan Am, Juan Trippe. As Hughes’ chief advisor and financial tutor, Noah Dietrich, John C. Reilly delivers a generous, humble, but solid performance, refusing to over-play the characters astonishment at Hughes’ reckless spending. He also delivers what is probably the biggest laugh-out-loud punch-line of the film.

Oscar nominations should also go to Robert Richardson’s vivid, imaginative cinematography, which equals his excellent effort in Kill Bill, Vol. 2. Dante Ferretti’s production design is awe-inspiring; we feel transported through time, from the decadence of the Coconut Grove nightclub to a vast beet field where Hughes has to set down one of his experimental planes. The costumes by Sandy Powell are meticulously designed. And Howard Shore, the composer of The Lord of the Rings’ Oscar-winning soundtracks, delivers something entirely different and equally effective.

Scorsese has much to be proud of with this film. But as a storyteller, working with Logan’s screenplay, he’s stuck in some of the shallowest waters of his career. He’s a seeker, one fascinated by men of power who change the world, men who often defy religion and the law in order to communicate their vision to a bewildered world. From Charlie Cappa (Mean Streets), to Raging Bull’s Jake LaMotta, to Henry Hill (Goodfellas), to Christ himself (or, at least, Nikos Kazantzakis’ fictionalized, flawed savior in The Last Temptation of Christ), he wants to know what makes these larger-than-life personalities tick, what crosses they must carry as they struggle to reconcile the honorable and dishonorable parts of their nature. In Hughes, there’s not much to admire in the way of virtue. He ran roughshod over anyone who stood in his way. While his courage was impressive, his methods and his priorities would unfortunately become a bad example to many who came to admire him. If you prefer celebrity, power, and riches to integrity, humility, and generosity, then Hughes is your American dream made manifest.

When it comes to learning how to succeed by worldly standards, Donald Trump wouldn’t even qualify to serve as Hughes’ apprentice. Hughes’s achievements should prompt us to wonder what would be possible if billionaires like Donald Trump had more than just ego and ambition – if they had dreams about a better world. Bill Gates, actually, would be a better comparison; his humanitarian efforts and commitment to helping Africa are more impressive than any of Howard Hughes’ vainglorious dreams.

But where is the cultural hero with the imagination, the daring, and the ambition of Hughes, who also demonstrates a sense of ethics, of integrity, and of selfless love for others? Imagine what an impact such a person could have on the world. To find someone with that kind of vision, courage, and humility, you’d have to go back two thousand years. Or you could watch another 2004 movie … by a director named Mel Gibson.

There, you’ll see the difference between the heroes we want to be and the heroes we should desire to be. The glitz and glamour that Howard Hughes enjoyed is certainly more appealing than what Jesus Christ endures in The Passion. But only one of these men sets the example that can save the world … even if his story is overlooked, or worse condemned, by critics. How little things have changed in two thousand years.