Review – Masters of the Air

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Overview

Directing Cary Joji Fukunaga, Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, Dee Rees, Tim Van Patten

Writing John Shiban, John Orloff, Joel Anderson Thompson, Dee Rees, Morwenna Banks

Starring Austin Butler, Callum Turner, Anthony Boyle, Barry Keoghan, Sawyer Spielberg, Branden Cook

Genre War Drama

Platforms AppleTV+

Release Date January 26 - March 15

World War II is a subject close to my heart, and deeply connected to my family. In June 1943, my Uncle Lowell Collins was serving in the Army Air Force in a B-17 bomber named Lucky Lady when his damaged plane crashed in the English Channel, likely killing seven of the ten airmen aboard. He was one of more than 52,000 American airmen who died in combat, a victim of a branch of the military that suffered the highest casualty rates of the war, with 75% of airmen dying or being captured before they could finish their tours of duty. My late grandmother Leota kept her brother’s photo in her living room until she passed away.

As someone who has been fascinated and connected to the Second World War by blood, I regularly seek content about it. I’ve always enjoyed reading memoirs, watching documentaries, and speaking to veterans about their experiences. The recent HBO documentary The Cold Blue was one of my favorite recent films because it did an excellent job depicting the experience of B-17 bomber pilots. Curiously, this subject is a passion shared with a notable Hollywood actor who has made a side hustle out of his fascination with WWII.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: War violence, with large amounts of blood, gore, dead bodies, and characters killed in combat
Language/Crude Humor: Severe language throughout
Drug/Alcohol References: Characters drink and smoke heavily to cope with their stress
Sexual Content: Several characters have illicit unwed sexual affairs, with partial nudity and a few covered sex scenes
Spiritual Content: Several of the characters are implicitly practicing Christians or Jewish
Other Negative Content: Bleak content may be challenging for some viewers
Positive Content: Themes of fighting evil, bravely facing death, and comradeship among soldiers

Review

I kind of love that Tom Hanks has spent the last three decades obsessed with World War II. After starring in Saving Private Ryan, he became an executive producer of three WWII mini-series — Band of Brothers, The Pacific, and Masters of the Air — produced several documentaries, and directed the AppleTV+ naval film Greyhound. The third of those series premiered this spring and has been one of the more curious shows on streaming.

It’s fascinating that AppleTV+ picked the series up. Of late, they’ve become a surprisingly consistent source of historical fiction content with projects like Franklin, Manhunt, Napoleon, and Killers of the Flower Moon. Masters of the Air is a curious series in this regard if only because of how much passion is behind it. The show has mostly been relegated to a small fanbase of World War II buffs and sadly hasn’t made the same cultural impact Band of Brothers made two decades ago for HBO.

The series follows the 100th Bomber Group during the middle and later years of World War II. With the US committed to daytime bombing raids of France and Germany, the Army Air Force is forced to take the brunt of the worst casualties of the war, as it regularly sends hundreds of unguarded bombers across the continent to be picked off one-by-one in Luftwaffe raids in a desperate attempt to weaken the German air force and damage factories and transportation behind enemy lines.

Given the subject material — with several episodes ending in the majority of the characters dead or captured behind German lines — the series struggles with characterization. Most of the characters we meet in episode one end up facing some of the worst days of the war, and most are lucky to be alive by the halfway point of the series. Many of them come off as cocky one-dimensional pilots and don’t stand out much. There are only a few characters I can remember by name without checking the credits.

It probably doesn’t help that the Donald Miller book it’s partially based on isn’t quite the source material of Stephen Ambrose’s work. While I haven’t read Masters of the Air nor Harry Crosby’s book On a Wing and a Prayer and won’t speak poorly of them, few WWII books compare to the vivid detail and dense biographical work Ambrose accomplished in his books like Band of Brothers — which just so happened to cover some of the most dramatic moments of WWII through the eyes of the 101st Airborne Division.

Given The Pacific had similar problems, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Band of Brothers magic is lightning in a bottle that can’t easily be conjured again.

The series’s strength is in its execution, with some of the most harrowing and stressful depictions of B-17 bomber combat ever put to camera. The first seven episodes, up through mid-1944, are a brutal experience just because you’re watching young men face the reality they will likely die. Even if I’m not deeply invested in these characters, watching them go through hell and back makes for a rough watch. It captures the same kind of visceral horror as Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, putting innocent young men in the most horrifying circumstances imaginable.

Masters of the Air is probably never going to go down in history as anything more than a curiosity for history nerds and dads. It doesn’t quite have the chops to reach as deeply as its predecessor did. Its characters aren’t as vivid or complex. However, Tom Hanks is nothing if not a fellow history nerd and his passion bleeds through every scene, with painful attention to period-accurate details that make 1940s England and Germany feel alive and textured. It gives you a renewed sense of the horror of the battlefield, and shows it in a front of the war most people forget about.

The Bottom Line

 

Masters of the Air may have a weak narrative, but its execution is remarkable and provides insight into some of the harshest battles of World War II.

 

7.7

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Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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