The Aviator (2004) - Plot Summary Poster



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  • A biopic depicting the early years of legendary Director and aviator Howard Hughes' career from the late 1920s to the mid 1940s.

  • Biopic of billionaire Howard Hughes, starting with his early filmmaking years as owner of R.K.O. Pictures, but mostly focusing on his role in designing and promoting new aircraft. Hughes was a risk-taker spending several fortunes on designing experimental aircraft and eventually founding TWA as a rival to Pan Am airlines owned by his great rival Juan Trippe. When Trippe's politico Senator Ralph Owen Brewster accuses Hughes of being a war profiteer, it's Hughes who gains the upper hand. Hughes also had many women in his life including a long relationship with Katharine Hepburn. From an early age, however, Hughes was also germophobic and would have severe bouts of mental illness.

  • Billionaire and aviation tycoon Howard Hughes is a successful public figure: a director of big-budget Hollywood movies such as "Hell's Angels (1930)", a passionate lover of Hollywood's leading ladies Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner, and an aviation pioneer who helps build TWA into a major airline. But in private, Hughes remains tormented, suffering from paralyzing phobias and depression. The higher he rises, the farther has to fall.

  • The script begins as a young Hughes directs one of Director Martin Scorsese's favorite movies, Hell's Angels (1930). Hughes was so obsessed with perfection in the aerial sequences that he waits forever for perfect conditions, right down to cloud formations. This movie ends in 1946, when Hughes was still a dashing young man and romancing actresses like Ava Gardner and Katharine Hepburn.

  • Phenomenal public success contrasts with private behaviors close to madness: Howard Hughes from the late 1920s to the late 1940s, from "Hell's Angels (1930)" (spending a fortune on details) through the only flight of the Hercules, a huge, money-losing transport plane. Along the way, the public Hughes sees the big picture, in movies and in aviation, building TWA and leading it through a fight with Pan Am and the U.S. Senate. In private, phobias and compulsions threaten him with self-imposed solitary confinement. How long can his imagination, drive, and the sympathies of Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, and the men who work for him stave off these internal disorders?

  • Focusing on his early years (from the 1930 production of Hell's Angels (1930), to the 1947 test flight of the Spruce Goose, when he was forty-two), this is the story of how young Howard Hughes transformed a small fortune into a massive one. The son of the Texan inventor of an amazing drill bit who died when he was eighteen, leaving him with seventy-five percent of the "Hughes Tool Co.", Howard Hughes quickly moved to Los Angeles to become a Hollywood movie producer, where he helped launch the career of Jean Harlow and other starlets, and producing such classics as Hell's Angels (1930), The Front Page (1931), Flying Leathernecks (1951), and Scarface (1932), eventually owning R.K.O. Pictures. Hughes' legend came not from focusing on just Hollywood, however, as he simultaneously branched into industry after industry, including aviation in 1932 (including TWA Airlines), and during World War II, defense, leading to the creation of the Spruce Goose, a flying boat of immense size. After World War II, Hughes' expansions continued, with an electronics company that was integral to the evolution of the satellite, and Hughes' several Las Vegas casinos (though this movie may be ending before he moves there). This movie also focuses on Hughes' romances with Hollywood stars like Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • The Aviator has no opening credits other than the title. The film begins in 1913 with nine-year-old Hughes being bathed by his mother, who warns him of disease: "You are not safe."

    The film next shows him in 1927, as a 22-year old preparing to direct Hell's Angels. Hiring Noah Dietrich (John C. Reilly) to run Hughes Tool Co, while he oversees the flight sequences for the film, Hughes becomes obsessed with shooting the film realistically, even re-shooting the dogfight himself. By 1929, with the film finally complete, when The Jazz Singer is released, Hughes re-shoots the film for sound, costing another year and $1.7 million. Nevertheless, Hell's Angels is a huge hit, and Hughes makes Scarface and The Outlaw. However, there is one goal he relentlessly pursues: aviation. During this time, he also pursues Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett). The two go to nightclubs, play golf and fly together, and as they grow closer, move in together as well. During this time Hepburn becomes a major support and confidant to Hughes, and helps alleviate the symptoms of his obsessive-compulsive disorder. As Hughes' fame grows, he is seen with more starlets.

    Hughes takes an interest in commercial-passenger travel, and purchases majority interest in Transcontinental & Western Air (TWA), the predecessor to Trans World Airlines. In 1935, he test flies the H-1 Racer but crashes in a beet field; "Fastest man on the planet," he boasts to Hepburn. Three years later, he flies around the world in four days, shattering the previous record by three days. Meanwhile, Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin), owner of Pan American Airlines, and Senator Owen Brewster (Alan Alda) worry over the possibility that Hughes might beat them in the quest for commercial expansion. Brewster has just introduced the Commercial Airline Bill, which will give world expansion solely to Pan Am. Trippe advises Brewster to check to the "disquieting rumors about Mr. Hughes."

    Hepburn and Hughes eventually break up when she announces that she has fallen in love with her movie costar (although he is briefly seen but never clearly stated, the viewers already know that the costar is her would be life-long partner Spencer Tracy).

    He soon has a new interest: 15-year old Faith Domergue (Kelli Garner) and later, Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale). He also fights the Motion Picture Association of America over the steamy scenes in The Outlaw. He learns of Pan Am's efforts to run TWA off the map yet secures contracts with the Army Air Force on two projects, a spy plane and a troop transport. By 1946, Hughes has only finished the XF-11 reconnaissance aircraft and is building the H-4 Hercules ("Spruce Goose") flying boat.

    With the strain of meeting deadlines and budgets, Hughes starts to show signs of alarming behavior, repeating phrases over and over and exhibiting a phobia over dust and germs. That July, he takes the XF-11 for a test flight. One of the propellers malfunctions, causing a crash in a Beverly Hills neighborhood. Rushed to the hospital, he slowly recuperates but learns the H-4 Hercules transport is no longer needed but orders production to continue. When he is discharged, the whole TWA fleet is built and ready to go, but he is in danger of being bankrupted by the airline and his flying boat.

    Afraid of the media trying to find him, Hughes places microphones and taps Ava's phone lines to keep track of any suspicious activity. After being confronted by Gardner, he returns home to find the FBI searching his house for incriminating evidence that he embezzled government funds. The incident is both a powerful trauma for Hughes and gives his enemies knowledge about his condition. Hughes meets with Brewster, who offers to drop the charges if Hughes supports the CAB Bill and sells the TWA stock to Trippe. Hughes sinks into a deep depression afterwards, shutting himself in his screening room, growing ever more paranoid and detached from reality; terrified of germs, he urinates into dozens of empty milk bottles. Hepburn tries to visit him, but is unable to help. Trippe then pays Hughes a visit, but an enraged Hughes vows he will never sell TWA. Trippe warns Dietrich that the world will see what Hughes has become if he goes to the Hearings. After nearly three months, Hughes finally emerges and prepares to face the Senate, with encouragement from Ava Gardner, who helps him get cleaned up.

    Hughes arrives at the hearings, and starts off with counter-claiming Brewster's charges: "Why not tell the truth, Senator? Why not tell the truth that this investigation was really born on the day that TWA first decided to fly to Europe?" Humiliated and enraged by this turn of events, Brewster formally states that Hughes charged the Defense Department $56 million for aircraft that never flew. Hughes defends himself and reveals that Trippe essentially bribed Brewster to hold the hearings. The H-4 hercules "Spruce Goose" transport

    Hughes successfully test flies the flying boat himself. After the flight, he talks to Dietrich and his mechanic Odie (Matt Ross) about a new jetliner for TWA (The Convair 880 Coronado) and makes a date with Gardner at a celebration party on the Long Beach shoreline. Hughes seems free of his inner demons until he sees three attendants in business suits and white gloves edging towards him, which triggers an obsessive-compulsive fit as he begins repeating "The way of the future." Dietrich and Odie take Hughes in a bathroom and hide him there, while Dietrich fetches a doctor and Odie stands outside guarding the door. Alone inside, Howard has a flashback to his boyhood, being washed by his mother and resolving he will fly the fastest aircraft ever built, make the biggest movies ever and become the richest man in the world. As the film ends he mutters "the way of the future... the way of the future" into a darkened mirror.

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