Good financial backing and youthful self-confidence can go a long way in making things happen---especially when those two qualities come together in a man as compelling as Howard Hughes.
Inheriting the major interests in his father's tool company at age nineteen, Howard (Leonardo DiCaprio) finds himself orphaned but independently wealthy. Leaving the Texas-based business in the hands of his new assistant Noah Dietrich (John C. Reilly), he indulges himself in making movies, including the time-consuming and costly Hell's Angels. Always the risk taker, his later films pushed the rating board's standard of good taste and decency.
However, the Aviator focuses for the most part on Howard's other passion. (No, it isn't women, although the string of Hollywood bombshells he hobnobs with might imply otherwise.) In reality, the wealthy young industrialist loves airplanes.
Working together, he and his chief engineer Glenn Odekirk (Matt Ross) develop numerous innovative ideas and make many modifications to their planes. Always demanding perfection, Howard continually pushes his crew until the outcome is exactly what he wants. As a result, he repeatedly makes aviation history in speed trials.
But while Howard ably bails himself out of financial fiascos and continues to triumph in the sky, his personal life is in a definite downward spiral. Pan Am president Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) and Senator Orin Brewster (Alan Alda) are bearing down on his company's defaulted contracts. Involved with the likes of Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale), and the fifteen-year-old Faith Domergue (Kelli Garner), his romantic interests are also hampered by his increasingly erratic and eccentric behaviors.
For audience members, his plummeting mental health translates into several scenes where a longhaired and bearded DiCaprio lounges in a darkened room completely naked. (While there is no frontal nudity, there are plenty of behind shots.) Nervous tics, hallucinations and compulsive hand washing also haunt the increasingly germ-phobic Howard.
Covering a profanity-packed twenty years of the entrepreneur's life and a limited number of his business adventures, the script portrays several self-defining moments including a fiery and horrific crash during a flight test.
While the capitalist portrayed in this film openly uses his money to influence others, he also comes clean under oath and doesn't step down from a challenge. Given the immense amount of mystery surrounding this eventual recluse, it may be hard to fully appreciate his contributions to the aeronautic industry, but his passion for flying can never be denied.
For parents, weighing the historical significance of this man against the film's content concerns will determine if they are ready to push forward or pull back on the throttle when it comes to taking a flight with this Aviator.