Shout! Factory // 2004 // 170 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge David Ryan (Retired) // December 21st, 2004
Money, Power, Genius, Madness.
There are few figures in American history as utterly fascinating as Howard Robard Hughes, Jr. The brilliant, handsome, and filthy rich son of a Houston-based oil industry tool manufacturer who invented the modern oil well drill bit, Hughes was a real-life Walter Mitty. Except unlike the fictional Mitty, Hughes had millions of dollars on hand with which to make his dreams reality. In his 71 years, he became a highly successful Hollywood producer, a record-breaking airplane racer, an airline industry tycoon, a manufacturer of aircraft, a secret tool of the CIA, a drug addict, a thorn in the side of the Senate, a Las Vegas casino magnate, and a millionaire playboy who romanced just about every notable starlet of his era. Known by millions, but truly known by few, Hughes gradually became a recluse, living out his days in sealed-off hotel suites around the world until his death in 1976.
It was only a matter of time until his story was made into a feature film -- any segment of his life on its own would make a fascinating motion picture, let alone the whole story -- and sure enough, Martin Scorsese's The Aviator is on the verge of national release. It's also not surprising that a documentary telling the true story of Hughes's triumphant-yet-bizarre life and times would, coincidentally, be released to nip at the heels of Scorsese's dramatic telling. And here it is, from the good folks at Shout! Factory.
Hughes's story is so vast, and so wide-ranging, that it's almost impossible to tell it in full. Therefore, documentarians have a choice: they can concentrate on one aspect of the Hughes story in detail (say, his racing career), or they can cover the whole story in a somewhat glib, glossed-over manner. The makers of Howard Hughes -- The Real Aviator have chosen the latter course. This is a complete history of Hughes that covers almost all the bases, but covers none of them in great detail. If you want to really dig in to the Hughes drama, it will probably just leave you wishing for more; but as an overview of Hughes's life and times, it's outstanding.
This documentary uses the risky technique of having its subject "narrate" the story -- in this case, a fellow named Michael Ferreri portrays Hughes. If done poorly, this technique can be cloying and hideously phony -- but it actually works pretty well here. Ferreri does a decent job capturing Hughes's unique accent (it can only be described as a "patrician drawl"). But the technique is definitely a mixed bag -- Hughes clearly had a strong iron streak in him, but throughout the narrative Ferreri is full of gee-shucks Texas charm. I don't doubt that Hughes was charming, but charming in a Sean Connery way, not a Gary Sinise way. This would be a minor nitpick, but for the fact that the narrative pseudo-Hughes's charm is used to generate sympathy for him towards the end of his story, when he's living naked and secluded in the Desert Inn, allegedly manipulated by the "Mormon Mafia" of Hughes executives who were his sole connection to the outside world. I get the feeling that the real Hughes would have rejected any thoughts of pity for himself, and reacted negatively towards anyone who attempted to give him any. But that's not the Hughes that narrates this piece, and I'm not a big fan of glossing over a documentary subject's true character for the sake of pathos.
The feature is solid enough, but the beauty here is in the extras. Shout! Factory has included a flying-boatload of extras for your perusal, much of which consists of original newsreel footage the '30s and '40s. With the exception of some audio quirks (it seems that some of the newsreel narration has been cut out, perhaps for licensing reasons), the newsreel footage is fantastically transferred -- much of it is as good as any footage from that era I've ever seen. There are highlights of some of the grandiose openings of Hughes's films (the most elaborate being the half-a-million strong premiere of Hell's Angels, the biggest movie opening event in history), the legendary one mile flight of the HK-1/H-4 Hercules flying boat (better known as the "Spruce Goose"), Hughes's testimony before Congress after being accused of war profiteering, and other great bits of Hughes history. Also included are extended interviews with the friends of Hughes interviewed for the documentary, and a photo gallery. This gaggle of extras is the perfect complement to the main feature, giving you a closer and better look at some of the events/people/things discussed therein.
Howard Hughes -- The Real Aviator is far from the definitive documentary on the gripping story of Howard Hughes. His life, with all its dramatic twists and turns, begs for a massive documentary treatment along the lines of your typical Ken Burns production. But this disc (which is reasonably priced, too!) is a great companion piece for fans who, like myself, are anticipating Scorsese's take on the Hughes story with bated breath. Although relatively superficial, it still covers all the highlights and lowlights of this larger-than-life man's life, and does so in an entertaining fashion.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 170 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Hughes Conquers Hollywood
* Hughes Takes On the U.S. Government
* The Flying Boat: World's Largest Plane
* The Constellation
* Hughes in Flight
* Hughes Aircraft Headquarters
* Photo Gallery
* Interviews with Hughes Friends/Confidants
* Evergreen Aviation Museum, McMinnville, OR (Home of the "Spruce Goose")
* The Howard Hughes Medical Institute