Aviator Promotes Market Competition
by Ari Armstrong, December 29, 2004
I had heard of the Spruce Goose, but I didn't know it was partially funded by tax dollars. I knew little about Howard Hughes prior to watching Aviator, and I suspect that much of what I "learned" by watching the movie is false or in need of qualification. My aim is to comment on the film as fiction, not analyze the real life of Hughes.
What surprised me about the film is that it celebrates achievement and criticizes state power. Free-market sentiments coming from Hollywood? It's as if a leader from a former Soviet satellite started preaching liberty. (Wait -- that happened, too. As the December 28 Rocky Mountain News reviews, Kateryna Yushenko, wife of newly-elected Viktor Yushenko of Ukrain, said of her opponents, "The last thing they want is for the system to change and for the economy to be a free market economy where the general population benefits rather than a small group of people at the top.")
Hughes took a lot of state money to build war planes, as the film reviews. But this is portrayed in the context of a war, and anyway it is not taken to be primarily what makes him a success. Hughes is not portrayed as a principled capitalist or as a moral person. Instead he is a flawed individual who gets some things right and drives his business to innovation.
Hughes is held up for his passion for aviation and for spending his own life and resources advancing it. Always insisting on perfection, Hughes drives a revolution in propeller-driven planes. The film ends with the invention of the jet engine, technology Hughes is determined to acquire.
At one point, Hughes tells a group of high-society socialists something like, "You don't care about money because you have it... Some people work for a living."
Hughes' TWA is pitted against Pan Am. As the movie plays it, Pan Am tried to get a government-backed monopoly on international travel -- to protect the "interests of the consumer," of course. Politics is shown as it often really is: big-money special-interests buy off politicians, who then confer special legal privileges to the group and stifle market competition. Monopoly is properly portrayed as political force against free enterprise. The movie is best when Hughes reams out a U.S. Senator for abusing legislative power and attempting to squash competition.
The film portrays Hughes as suffering from obsessive-compulsive behavior. He's hypersensitive about germs, and he gets stuck on repetitive actions and words. This element of the movie could have been restrained (which would have made for a more tolerable running time). I have a feeling Hughes' horrific personal life was drawn out more for the Oscar committee than for the audience.
Aviator is fun as a history piece. Big-name stars of a past era, such as Katharine Hepburn, make an appearance (played by big-name stars of today). Aviator follows Hughes through the filming of Hell's Angels, a war plane picture. Ultimately, though, the film fails to inspire as it might have. It's unfocused. Still, its political themes are surprisingly supportive of free enterprise, a prominant silver lining to a cloud Hughes might have appreciated.