Superb directing unlocks door to mad millionaire’s epic life

He stands in the men’s room, motionless, petrified by fear. The last towel has been used and the doorknob must be turned for him to make his exit. Yet, he cannot do this. Everything in the room is filthy and covered in germs.

In this small scene from Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator,” we see the Howard Hughes we know from tabloid covers, the mad millionaire who locked himself in a tower above the Las Vegas strip, wearing tissue box shoes to cover his uncut toenails. This hermit’s shadow looms large over “The Aviator.” Because this is a biopic about Hughes, we know how this life will end and that shrouds the film in a fatalistic gloom.

It is then even more of an accomplishment that Scorsese is able to render this descent into madness with such verve and vivacity. There is a great joy to this film.

The movie begins, after a prologue displaying the sowing of Hughes’ germophobic seeds, with Hughes on the set of his first film as director, the 1930 WWI flying epic “Hell’s Angels.” He has inherited a fortune from a machine parts company and decides to spend it making movies. An ironic caption reads “Filming of Hell’s Angels – Year One.” We get the sense that this production will be epic in every sense of the word.

Hughes becomes obsessed with aeronautics and aviation after filming “Hell’s Angels,” buying up a controlling interest in TWA. He also becomes obsessed with picking up screen starlets. Over the course of the film, he dates Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale), Jean Harlow (Gwen Stefani, doing a fair impression in her cameo) and, in the best performance of the film, Cate Blanchett’s Katherine Hepburn.

Here Blanchett has created a character for the ages. Her Hepburn goes so far beyond a mere impression that we completely forget the Hepburn of “Bringing Up Baby” and “Adam’s Rib.” This character belongs to “The Aviator.” She makes it human – no small task considering the real-life Hepburn was so mannered.

Hughes’ courtship of Hepburn provides the film with some of its best moments. Their first date on a golf course establishes Hepburn as a socially conscious motormouth, while their flight over the Hollywood Hills in Hughes’s private plane give us a moment of true tenderness.

Hepburn was the love of Hughes’ life, according to this film. After she dumps him for being too absorbed in his business dealings, Hughes pays to kill a tabloid story smearing her secret affair with the married Spencer Tracy.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes would at first seem miscast. He looks too young to do an impression of Hughes (even though we first meet Hughes at 24 and DiCaprio is 30), but he isn’t too young to embody his tenacity. That’s preferable to a cheap impression, anyway.

The screenplay by John Logan (“Gladiator,” “The Last Samurai”) can also take credit for making Hughes into a fully realized character. When eating at the Coconut Grove, Errol Flynn (Jude Law, who by law must appear in every movie released in 2004) swipes a pea off Hughes’ plate. This ruins the germophobe’s meal.

The scene with Hughes in the bathroom exemplifies how his neuroses build into uncontrollable compulsions. The way he waits by the door for someone to open it, so that he may escape without anyone noticing his madness, is perfect.

But it is Scorsese’s whirlwind direction that takes center stage. He guides us from the premier of “Hell’s Angels” with a firestorm of camera flashbulbs reminiscent of those in “Raging Bull” to the pastoral calmness of the Hepburn estate. We finally arrive at an eerie final scene that reminds us just what drives Hughes’ obsessions.

Scorsese uses an interesting visual strategy with this film. As the timeline of the film progresses, so does the color palette. In essence, Scorsese begins the film in colors reminiscent of so-called “two-strip” Technicolor, changing palettes as the film color technologies of the time periods he portrays progress, ending in living color.

In an exhilarating and terrifying scene, Hughes crashes the experimental XF-11 through a block of Beverly Hills homes. Scorsese shows us the carnage from inside these homes, as wings and wheels come tearing through mansion walls. DiCaprio is at his best when portraying Hughes’ shrieking struggle to escape his burning plane.

After the accident, Hughes, who burned over 70 percent of his body, locks himself in the projection room of his film production company, replaying the same movie over and over and urinating into milk bottles. His mind is so far lost that it seems to be the end of him.

But Hughes is a fighter and Pan Am CEO Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) is trying to buy government approval for a monopoly on the skies. We know from Hughes’ rise to power there is nothing and no one he will not fight to get what he wants.

With the help of ex-love Ava Gardner, he cleans himself up to face Senator Ralph Owen Brewster (Alan Alda), who Pan Am has bought to defame Hughes as a war profiteer. He is accused of taking taxpayer dollars to build planes that will never fly, most infamously his Goliath, or “Spruce Goose” as Brewster nicknames the giant wooden plane.

But it won’t be a senate hearings committee that undoes Hughes. It will be his own twisted mind.

This is an epic life story told in epic fashion. It’s both a celebration of a period in time that the filmmakers clearly love and an elegy for a man who accomplished so much, yet understood himself so little.

Scorsese renders this tale with the enthusiasm one would expect from a man so thoroughly versed in cinema history. The movie flies by at almost three hours because Scorsese does his job so well. Like a seasoned juggler, he lets you see just how much work he is doing, while making it all seem so effortless.