How accurate is the movie The Aviator

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One of the most important movies of 2004 was The Aviator. It was directed by perhaps the leading directors of the modern era Martin Scorsese and scripted by serial academy award nominee John Logan. It is a historical epic that focused on a key period in the life of Howard Hughes one of the most famous and arguably important men of the twentieth century. Scorsese’s movie focuses on the rise of Howard Hughes and his impact on Hollywood, aviation, and indeed America, over a twenty-year period from the 1920s to the 1940s. The motion picture starred Leonardo di Caprio as Howard Hughes, Cate Blanchet as the acclaimed actress Katherine Hepburn and Kate Beckinsdale played the screen star Ava Gardiner. The supporting cast featured a number of high-profile actors who would typically have expected to headline a movie. The Aviator, which was released on Christmas Day was a box-office smash and the critics generally praised it. The movie received eleven nominations at the Academy Awards and won seven in 2005. There was much discussion at the time regarding the accuracy of the biopic and if the portrayal of Hughes and his life was realistic. Below is a discussion of the accuracy of the movie.

The Aviator Movie Poster

Howard Hughes Character

The movie perfectly captures the early life of Howard Hughes. He was indeed the rather spoilt child of a very wealthy family in Texas. The young boy was fascinated by all things technical and this he probably inherited from his father, Howard Hughes Senior. He had invented a drill for the oil industry and had founded the Hughes Tool Company, which was extremely profitable [1]). Howard became very wealthy at the age of 19, because he inherited the majority of Hughes Tools, which was based in Houston, Texas. This allowed him to follow his passions and he had many of these. The wealth of the Texan is captured very well in the movie and it did allow him to live a lavish lifestyle and to fund his many projects. The movie portrays Hughes as a playboy in the roaring 1920s and 1930s and indeed this was the case. Scorsese in his movie manages to capture the drive and the sheer brilliance of Hughes. He was never idle and always had multiple projects on the go.

Howard Hughes c1940

Howard Hughes and the movies

The Aviator shows Hughes spending a lot of time in Hollywood both as a producer and a party animal. In this regard the movie is accurate as Hughes was very important in Hollywood and part of its inner circle. Hughes uncle had been a writer and one of the early scriptwriters in Tinsel Town. The Texan because of the profits from his father’s company was able to use his own personal money to make films and he was able to operate outside of the studio system [2]. In the movie the young Texan millionaire is show as investing heavily in the movie Hell’s Angels a World War I epic. This was true, and it did go wildly over budget as portrayed the movie and lost a great deal of money. The Aviator portrays Hughes as gambling everything that he had on this movie and that he was a novice in the industry. In fact, Hughes had made movies before and he was an established producer and one of his productions had even won an Academy Award. The Aviator does show very accurately that Hughes movie Hell’s Angels was indeed a pioneering work in its realism and its use of special effects and it was and remains an influential movie [3]. Scorsese’s biopic then chronicles the long involvement of Hughes in filmmaking. It correctly shows him as willing to back risky and controversial subjects. At the time there was a growing conservative backlash against Hollywood and there was increasing censorship of the cinema. Hughes did push back against this and he was frequently in trouble with censors over movies such as Scarface and The Outlaw. Scorsese shows Hughes being influenced by Katherine Hepburn with regard to censorship and as a result he takes a rather principled approach to the issue as a result. In reality Hughes disliked censorship because he believed that it was bad for box-office. He was always a business man and for him cinema was a glamorous business and not an art form.

The many women in Howard Hughes Life

The multi-millionaire is shown in the movie as having many affairs with a bevy of beauties, many of them Hollywood starlets. It also portrays him as having a long-term relationship with Katherine Hepburn (Blanchet) and Ava Gardner (Beckingsdale). This was to a large extent true and Hughes did indeed have a great many girlfriends and mistresses, but in real life the Texan multi-millionaire was even more promiscuous. The picture does not deal with claims that he used his power and wealth to force women into sexual relationships with him. At least one actress later claimed that Hughes implied that he would ruin her career if she did not become sexually involved with him. It is accurate that he had serious relationships with Ava Gardner and Katherine Hepburn and the Texan did have strong feelings for both women, especially for Hepburn. In the movie Hepburn is shown as possibly the love of his life and he wanted to marry her, which may have been correct. Scorsese’s movie totally glosses over the fact that Hughes was briefly married in the late 1920s. There are no references to his two wives and the impression is given that he was never married. The movie captures very well, the fact that despite his many lovers that Hughes was a very isolated figure and at heart a lonely man.

Katherine Hepburn c1940

Hughes as the aviator

Scorsese in his biopic deliberately called the movie The Aviator. This was because the director believed that Hughes was a great pioneer in aviation. The movie accurately shows that Hughes was a lifelong lover of aviation and engineering. He had taken flying lessons while still a young man and was a very good pilot. In the motion picture Hughes is shown as a dare-devil and someone who would not hesitate to undertake anything dangerous. The Texan was indeed a dare-devil and he was a fearless flyer. He survived four serious crashes and was badly burned on one occasion. Hughes was also famed as a round the world aviator and he broke several world records. The Texan at one time held the record for the fastest time to fly around the globe, that was briefly held by the legendary Charles Lindbergh. The producer and businessman was also personally involved in the design and manufacture of new aeroplanes and this is something very well shown in the motion picture. Hughes also had a controlling share in the TWA airline and was instrumental in the development of the modern airliner. The multi-millionaire founded the Hughes Aircraft Company, and this was very important in the development of a great many important technologies. The movie also shows his interest in flying boats and his design for the Spruce Goose, the largest seaplane of all time and these were all true [4]. Scorsese captures the importance of aviation in the life of Hughes and his contribution to the history of flight. Many have praised the movie for reminding the world that the subject of the biopic was a great figure in the history of aviation.

Hughes and his mental health

In one of the opening scenes of the movie the young Hughes is being bathed by his mother, and she is cautioning him of the many dangers that he faced in the world and warning him especially against dirt. Hughes is portrayed as a rather eccentric character even in his heyday as an aviator and Hollywood mogul. The director and the script indicated that Hughes eccentric behaviour was a result of his upbringing and his growing mental instability that is apparent by the end of the movie. One theory is that Hughes problems was a result of syphilis, which was a sexually transmitted disease, and which often led to serous mental health issues. Many have rejected this theory. It does seem that Hughes did have OCD and was obsessed with dirt and cleanliness. This is shown very well when some government agents raided his Hollywood home and Hughes is panicked by the idea that they are bringing germs into his home. His OCD became worse as it was untreated, and he also became dependent on painkillers after his various crashes. Scorsese’s movie does represent the variety of mental health issues that Hughes experienced but not their complex origins and causes. The 2004 motion picture was heavily criticised for not referencing the long physical and mental decline of Hughes. In later life he became a recluse in Las Vega and lived in appalling conditions and he only had his hair and nails cut once a year [5]. The man who was one of the richest men in America became petrified of germs.. However, Scorsese does allude to Hughes mental deterioration in the final scene when the Texan has a breakdown after seeing two men in germ-suits.

Howard Hughes c1940

The Congressional Hearing and Hughes

Hughes often had legal troubles and at one point was before the courts over a fatal car accident in the 1930s. The movie climaxes in 1947 when Hughes is forced to testify before the Senate, to defend himself against accusations that he had wasted government money during the war, that had been given to him for the production of the H4 Hercules Flying Boat and that the plane was not airworthy. The motion picture suggests that a rival of Hughes had bribed Senator Owen Brewster, to bring the charges against him as part of a vendetta. Just as in the motion picture the Texan millionaire was forced to testify before Congress, which was a major news story at the time. In one of the final scenes Hughes is shown flying the H4 seaplane and thereby proving that he had made a plane that could be used by the American air force and that he had not wasted government money<ref>Poyntz, S. " The way of the future" probing The Aviator for historical understanding:. Celluloid blackboard: Teaching history with film (2007), p.41. In reality, the hearing into Hughes alleged misuse of funds was much more complex . Some have claimed that the Texan fabricated the story that a business rival had bribed the Senator, investigating Hughes. This was part of a clever strategy in order to get out of his legal troubles. The Texan was never charged with wasting government money and the investigation was soon dropped. However, there are lingering suspicions about Hughes business activities. The movie does not mention the Texan’s role as a philanthropist and that he founded the world-renowned Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) which has developed many pioneering medications and treatments. <ref> McCook, A. (2005). What the aviator left out: visionary Howard Hughes Medical Institute had trouble taking off in its early days. The Scientist, 19(2), 52-53 <ref>.


The Aviator concentrates on Hughes during his prime when he was a leading figure in Hollywood, business, and aviation. The movie does capture the personality of Hughes who was a complex, tireless, and charismatic figure who captivated a generation. It also captures the man’s essential loneliness and his growing mental instability. However, its explanation for the cause of his mental health problems is too simplistic. The movie does portray Hughes as a great womaniser but neglects to show that he was actually married for some of the film. It also portrays him as a great aviator and there is some truth to this. Scorsese’s motion picture does capture the brilliance and his slow descent into mental illness and even alludes to his later years that were marred by instability, when he lived as a virtual recluse. However, The Aviator, fails to address many issues in Hughes life such as his often-controversial business practices and the dark side of his womanizing.

Recommended Reading

Fay, Stephen, Lewis Chester, and Magnus Linklater. Hoax: the inside story of the Howard Hughes--Clifford Irving affair (New York, Viking Adult, 1972).

Brown, Peter Harry, and Pat H. Broeske. Howard Hughes: The Untold Story (New York, Da Capo Press, 2004).

Higham, Charles. Howard Hughes: The Secret Life (New York, Macmillan, 2004).


  1. Barlett, Donald L., and James B. Steele. Howard Hughes: His Life & Madness (New York, WW Norton & Company, 2004, p 14
  2. Barlett, p. 45
  3. Porter, Darwin. Howard Hughes: Hell's Angel. ( Chicago, Blood Moon Productions, Ltd., 2005), p 78
  4. Barlett, p 245
  5. Meneghetti, Michael. "Feeling Yourself Disintegrate: The Aviator as History." Canadian Journal of Film Studies 20, no. 1 (2011): 2-19