Masters of the Air, review: astonishing wartime epic will take your breath away

Callum Turner and Austin Butler in Masters of the Air
A first-rate testament to heroism: Callum Turner and Austin Butler in Masters of the Air - Robert Viglasky/Apple TV+

It doesn’t take long for Masters of the Air (Apple TV+) to get going, and when it does: holy hell. If you have seen Band of Brothers, for which this is a companion piece, you’ll be braced for action. But the intensity of the aerial combat scenes featured here will take your breath away.

This is the story of the 100th Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force, an American unit sent to England in the spring of 1943. They were nicknamed “the Bloody Hundredth” on account of their losses. The drama’s cast is enormous, and there’s a reason for that. Many of the characters die, some of them before the first episode is done.

You can feel the love lavished on this project by producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. And you can feel the $250 million budget. That kind of money buys you James Bond director Cary Joji Fukunaga for the opening instalments, a man who knows how to film visceral action scenes. We’re right inside those tiny planes, under fire. To see a gunner trapped in the ball turret of a B-17 is to understand pure terror.

Men have their faces blown off, go down in burning aircraft, or are forced to bail out over enemy territory. And the men who witness all this happening to their comrades and somehow make it back alive have to go out and fly another mission tomorrow. What courage it must have taken.

Northern Irish actor Anthony Boyle delivers a stand-out performance as Harry Crosby
Northern Irish actor Anthony Boyle delivers a stand-out performance as Harry Crosby - Robert Viglasky

The missions are wrapped into a nine-part series that takes us from 1943 to the end of the war, based on the 2007 book by Donald L Miller. It’s not all horror. The camaraderie between the men is what draws you in. The theme music, by Blake Neely, is so stirring that you’ll probably be reduced to a puddle by the closing bars. It’s also one of the best-looking dramas you’ll see, and I’m partly talking about the cinematography but mainly about the cast. There’s only one reason to put Jude Law’s son here, and it’s because he looks like a young Jude Law. Austin Butler, fresh from playing Elvis, is shirtless in the trailer because a shirtless Austin Butler will attract an audience beyond military history buffs.

Butler plays Gale “Buck” Cleven, whose friendship with John “Bucky” Egan (Callum Turner) is at the heart of the drama. Cleven is preternaturally calm, Egan is a loose cannon, but they have an unbreakable bond. They head a cast which is mostly made up of British and Irish actors, presumably because the series was filmed in the UK.

Band of Brothers famously launched the careers of young actors who went on to big things: Damian Lewis, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Tom Hardy. The casting director of Masters of the Air also has a pretty good eye, because here we have Butler (Elvis), Barry Keoghan (Saltburn) and Ncuti Gatwa (Doctor Who), who were little known when filming began in 2021 but are now the men-of-the-moment.

The stand-out performance, though, is from Northern Irish actor Anthony Boyle as Harry Crosby, a navigator who flies all of his missions while clutching a sick bag. Boyle narrates, in a faultless American accent, with lines based on the real Crosby’s memoir.

By necessity, the aerial scenes use CGI, which lends an air of unreality to some of the shots. But they do give a clear illustration of how these raids were carried out. While the British bombed by night, the Americans went in daylight and in combat box formation. “I want formations so damn tight you wouldn’t be able to slip a dime through our wingtips,” the 100th’s commanding officer tells them.

The quiet moments before the missions are the ones that get you. The crew being served a special breakfast – double rations of bacon, French toast and flapjacks, fresh grapefruit juice and “GI coffee” – which they dub “the last supper”. The padre standing at the door of the makeshift chapel to see them on their way. A pilot pinning a picture of his sweetheart in the cockpit; another making the sign of the cross before take-off then saying, “Ok, boys, here we go”.

It’s not perfect. Those unfamiliar with military history would be forgiven for thinking that the Americans won the war, with just a little help from the Soviets in the final furlong. The British appear only fleetingly, as moustache-twirling officers who sneer at their American counterparts and speak to them in patronising tones (“Never mind, old boy. It’s one for the higher-ups”). An episode featuring the African-American Tuskegee Airmen, while well-intentioned, feels tacked on to the main narrative. Butler is so pretty that all of his scenes look like a GQ photoshoot.

But even Butler’s character is devoid of Top Gun-style swagger. These were real people – ordinary men doing extraordinary things. As a testament to heroism, Masters of the Air is first-rate.

On Apple TV+ now

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