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Shout Factory presents
Howard Hughes: The Real Aviator (2004)

"I soon recognized that up there, high above the Earth, alone, I was again at peace and totally oblivious to all. Flying was indeed my greatest love."
- Howard Hughes, from one of his journals (voiced by Michael Ferreri)

Review By: Nate Meyers  
Published: January 05, 2005

Stars: Michael Ferreri, Robert Maheu, Terry Moore, Jack Real, George Francom
Director: Bill Schwartz

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 00h:55m:58s
Release Date: November 16, 2004
UPC: 826663264890
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Howard Hughes is a rather compelling figure in history, even if his success and subsequent downfall seem to belong in a TV movie. In fact, if Howard Hughes had never existed, it would be tempting to say that only fiction could come up with a character like him. By the time Hughes was 19, both of his parents had died, leaving him the whole family fortune. He was, at one time, the richest man in the world. Later, he used that wealth to become a Hollywood producer and playboy. Following that he took over Las Vegas. He also became the subject of a U.S. Senate investigation for war profiteering and this preceded his fall into insanity, where he locked himself up in a room, paralyzed by his fear of germs. However, as the documentary Howard Hughes: The Real Aviator points out, Hughes was at home in the sky while flying a plane.

The documentary does a fine job of re-telling Hughes' life, capturing both the highpoints and the low ones as well. The primary structure of the narrative revolves around Hughes' own writings, read by Michael Ferreri. This is a nice insight into Hughes' own mind, allowing the viewer an opportunity to experience firsthand what Hughes thought of Senator Owen Brewster's attacks against him. However, it also narrows the documentary's focus too much, as it doesn't allow any distance from Hughes, so we don't get a more objective view of him. At no point in time does Hughes' writing indicate his personal weaknesses, such as being obsessive-compulsive and a philanderer. Director and producer Bill Schwartz is clearly an admirer of Hughes, but he fails to present a complete picture of the man.

There's also an element to which the documentary does not feel fully fleshed out. The primary plot piece of the movie is Hughes' effort to build the world's largest airplane for the U.S. Department of Defense during World War II. The concept was to develop a boat that could fly and Hughes' genius realized this concept, which became known as the "Sproose Goose." However, Hughes did not even create a functioning prototype by the time the war ended. This resulted in the Congressional inquiry, which seems to be a fair course of action since the government sponsored the plane. However, the documentary is totally one-sided and fails to acknowledge this portion of the story. Also, one will probably wonder why Hughes was given the task of building the plane in the first place. Some brief references are made to the fact that Hughes bought TWA and there's a portion where the filmmakers list his accomplishments in avionics , but the context is not provided for people to fully understand how impressive all of this is.

The only person who is interviewed that gives any external insight into Hughes' personality is Robert Maheu, who led the takeover of Vegas. Instead of getting good information out of his interviewees, Schwartz lets them go to waste as he provides interesting visuals for the viewer. Using a variety of archive footage, still photographs, and new material, Schwartz presents one of the more aesthetically pleasing documentaries of recent years. Some of the techniques that made The Kid Stays in the Picture such a robust work can be found here. However, the impressive filmmaking does not hide the fact that the documentary has gaps in its substance.

Howard Hughes: The Real Aviator is an earnest effort at telling Hughes' life, but it doesn't offer much insight beyond our culture's common knowledge of the man. It is, instead, a nice launching point for further inquiries into the fascinating figure of Howard Hughes. It's nice to look at and has its moments, such as the telling of Hughes' crash landing in Beverly Hills, but it feels more like cotton candy than an informative documentary. Nonetheless, cotton candy is always a fun treat.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: C+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The image quality is largely dictated by the source footage of Hughes' exploits, which varies between being fairly solid to being extremely faint and scratched. However, the interviews look nice and there is no noticeable artifacting, making this a pleasing transfer.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The mono track is a nice presentation, with a well-balanced mix allowing for the narration and music to blend nicely with the interviews and archival news reels featuring Hughes. It is spread across the front sound stage, but this does not liven up the mix much.

Audio Transfer Grade: C-


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 8 cues and remote access
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Outlaw, The Conqueror, Jet Fighter
1 Documentaries
4 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Extended Interviews—excerpts from the interviews with Robert Maheu, Terry Moore, Jack Real, and George Francom.
  2. Photo Gallery—a collection of pictures featuring Howard Hughes.
Extras Review: The extras include a handful of featurettes, and there are also extensions to the interviews that provide some truly interesting insights about Hughes. The first featurette, Hughes Conquers Hollywood (08m:38s), is basically three trailers for movies Hughes produced (The Outlaw, The Conqueror, and Jet Fighter). They play in succession, each one containing a lot of grain and dirt. Following that is the featurette Hughes Takes on the U.S. Government (11m:33s), which contains footage of the actual testimony Hughes gave at the Congressional hearings. It also features Sen. Brewster and Col. Elliot Roosevelt (FDR's son) speaking at the hearings. Much of what they say here is a repeat of information in the feature. Additionally, The Constellation: The Plane that Changed Passenger Aviation (08m:23s) is far too long and also a repeat from the documentary, consisting of home movies of famous celebrities (Cary Grant, Dick Powell, etc.) sitting on the plane, as well as some shots of one of the three planes remaining today. Following that is Hughes in Flight: Footage of the "Real Aviator" (09m:21s) that has a glimpse of Hughes' helicopter, which is not featured in the documentary. The final featurette is Hughes Aircraft Facilities (04m:05s), which contains modern footage and facts about the enormous hanger Hughes constructed the Sproose Goose in.

There is also a documentary on The Flying Boat: World's Largest Plane (15m:09s), which primarily uses footage shown in the feature. However, following that are extended interviews with Robert Maheu (20m:42s), Terry Moore (14m:48s), Jack Real (08m:53s), and George Francom (14m:01s). Maheu and Moore provide the most interesting information, such as the fact that Hughes carefully choreographed his "chance" meeting with Moore. Some of what they discuss is only loosely related to Hughes, but it's still worth a listen. So, despite lackluster featurettes, these interviews make the supplemental material an average companion to the feature presentation. There is also a small photo gallery of Hughes.

Extras Grade: C


Final Comments

Shout Factory has provided a solid release of this documentary, making it worth a look. The extras are nothing extraordinary, but they do provide a couple pieces of information that would have been nice to add into the feature.


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