But metaphorically, the phrase stands for many of the concerns that Scorsese explores in the picture. Hughes has just come out of a bruising fight to retain control of Trans World Airlines in which his competitors use unscrupulous congressional influence to try to break him. Dwight Eisenhower's warnings about "the military/industrial complex" are never spoken in this movie, but that's what Scorsese has in mind. And, in his telling, Howard Hughes is the last American individualist, a brilliant visionary willing to risk a vast personal fortune in pursuit of innovation and excellence. The wave of the future that Scorsese is worried about has names like McCarthyism in the 1950s. In our day, the operable words are Enron and Halliburton.
Written by John Logan and checking in at 2 hours and 45 minutes, The Aviator devotes but a single scene to Hughes' childhood when he is perhaps age 9. In it, he stands naked in a tub of water, and his mother washes him, caressing his limbs with soap while she drills him on spelling words and warns him about the dangers of a raging cholera epidemic. This opening passage, shot through a gauzy filter, is deliberately creepy. The boy is too old to be bathed this way, and the implications of incest are unavoidable. I'm not sure that we're to take the scene literally, however. It is never revisited, and there are no subsequent suggestions that Hughes's adult mental problems are the result of sexual abuse. But the scene haunts the movie nonetheless with its evident suggestion that Hughes carried obsessions from his childhood that would ultimately keep him from realizing an enduring greatness that might otherwise have been his.
Aside from its opening, The Aviator concentrates on the two decades of Hughes' life from the late 1920s, when he is making his mark as a movie producer, until the late 1940s, when he is forced to defend himself against charges of war profiteering for his development of the huge, wooden transport plane derided in the press as the Spruce Goose. In the early years, rich and handsome, Hughes dates a galaxy of Hollywood stars including Jean Harlow, Ginger Rogers and Jean Peters, but the loves of his life would seem to be first Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and later Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale). The film implies that he would have happily settled down with either of them. But Hepburn can't seem to handle his inability to make her the center of his life. And by the time he's involved with the brassy Gardner in the 1940s, his eccentricities have become so pronounced he's no longer a suitable companion. (The real Hughes would marry Peters after this, but she's not a character in the movie.)
Whatever his feelings for Hepburn and Gardner, however, and whatever his involvement with motion picture production -- he made the original Scarface in 1932 and the controversial The Outlaw in 1943 -- Hughes' real and enduring obsession is with aviation. (Almost half of his movies, from Hell's Angels in 1930 to Jet Pilot in 1957, were about planes and flyers.) As a pilot himself, he breaks speed records and becomes the first man to fly around the world in less than a week.
Two telling passages capture what matters most to Hughes. In one, Scorsese cuts from Hughes making love to Hepburn in his study, caressing her bare back, to a scene in his plane factory where Hughes caresses the skin of a new plane with the same hand and in a much more attentive manner. Later, as Hughes lies broken and presumably dying (he doesn't) after a horrible plane crash, he identifies himself to a rescuer this way: "I'm Howard Hughes, the aviator."
Hughes was born to a fortune and increased it many fold. (He was worth $1.3 billion at his death in 1976). But Scorsese nonetheless refuses to see him as an heir of privilege and pointedly contrasts him with Hepburn's own wealthy family members who seem to live a life of ease and retirement. One might worry that The Aviator fails to explore the thornier sides of Hughes' social and political attitudes, but Scorsese is interested in him as an emblem of a can-do America. Hughes starts life with incredible advantages, but he never plays safe. His restless creative spirit is always willing to risk catastrophic failure (including death) in the pursuit of spectacular success. And whatever the truths and complications of his story here untold, Scorsese makes his life a compelling rebuke to an age of insider trading and smug, facile patriotism.