Directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, John C Reilly, Alec Baldwin, Jude Law, Alan Alda, Matt Ross, Frances Conroy, Adam Scott, Danny Huston, Ian Holm and Gwen Stefani.
For Irish audiences under a certain age (say, 40), Howard Hughes is neither a well-known figure nor a ready-made candidate for a major Hollywood movie. But then, the story which first brought together the actor/director partnership of Scorsese and DiCaprio, 'Gangs of New York', was anything but obvious either.
The portion of Hughes' life story featured here takes us from Howard the heir to an industrial empire to Howard the aviation innovator via his days in Hollywood film production.
'The Aviator' is gorgeously shot in amazing colours on authentic-looking sets, and features much clever camerawork. It also builds an extensive supporting cast of classic-looking faces around DiCaprio, who is the only constant on screen throughout.
DiCaprio gives the performance of his career to date in portraying Hughes' character, from his unbridled ambition to his unbreakable determination and unfathomable eccentricity.
The story starts in the 1920s with Hughes taking over his father's tool business, and sees the young heir pouring most of the industrial profits into making motion pictures.
Much attention is devoted in this film to Hughes' second movie project and first as director, 'Hell's Angels'. Eventually becoming the most expensive movie ever made at the time, Hughes' labour of love took years to make and almost ran his finances into the ground.
He nonetheless went on to make several more films, while Scorsese's tale turns to focus on his years as an aviator, which began with the formation of Hughes Aviation Company, later Trans World Airways or TWA, in 1932. It is a remarkable story of technical innovation, record breaking and big business.
With the approach of World War II, however, Hughes' ambitions begin to stretch the limitations of what his company can actually produce, and cause him trouble in both securing and fulfilling contracts for military aircraft.
The movie shows how TWA fails to deliver on a deal to build three huge planes or 'flying boats', if you will, for $18m in three months. Only one such mammoth aircraft is ever made, and is only flown once by Hughes himself. This and other contract failures lead to a US Senate investigation, which Scorsese uses to add some courtroom drama to the film.
The final section of the movie portrays Hughes' increasing oddness, and makes much use of the almost clichéd example of obsessive compulsive disorder, that of excessive hand washing. Hughes also locks himself into a room and refuses to come out even to go to the toilet, as the fortunes of his business interests take further turns for the worse.
If there's anything amiss about this excellent production, it's the second half of Hughes' life – if you didn't know, he went on to develop a casino and hotel empire in Las Vegas and Reno in Nevada; formed close ties with the newly-formed CIA including the involvement of his chief of staff in a plot to assassinate Fidel Castro. An employee of Hughes worked in the office that was broken into in 1972, leading to the Watergate scandal that ended Nixon's political career.
It's certainly unusual for a biopic to be crying out for a sequel, but this superb film deserves a follow-up companion that would bring Scorsese's high production values to the fascinating story of the rest of Howard Hughes' life.