Over 22 years after the premiere of HBO’s landmark Band of Brothers and nearly 14 years after the launch of HBO’s The Pacific (not quite as good as Band of Brothers but still epic longform storytelling), executive producers Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman and Steven Spielberg have finally brought their third World War II series to the small screen.
It is, mind you, a misnomer to say that anything associated with Masters of the Air is “small,” be it the screen or otherwise. Based on Donald L. Miller’s 2007 book of the same name and developed for Apple TV+ by John Orloff, Masters of the Air is, by any measure, huge. It boasts a mammoth ensemble of young stars in various states of ascension, requires an astonishing quantity of technical effects to achieve its high-flying narrative and, when its key moments land, is equal parts breathtaking, exhilarating and rousingly inspirational.
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There are times in Masters of the Air when it’s easy to see the reasons this corner of the World War II tapestry was so complicated to adapt. The necessary reliance on computer augmentation to take the cinematic war into the skies makes the series less viscerally grounded than its predecessors, and there are moments you can see the writers struggling to fit Masters of the Air into an existing formula. By the end, though, it’s the overall achievement of Masters of the Air — one of nuts-and-bolts craftsmanship and emotion alike — that stands out more than the not-insignificant flaws.
The season’s focus is on the 100th Bomb Group. Stationed at RAF Thorpe Abbotts in England, the 100th was crucial to the European front of the war, earning the nickname the “Bloody Hundredth” for its disproportionate number of casualties.
That’s a warning that lots of the characters who appear in early episodes won’t make it to the finale. It also points to one of the primary challenges faced by Orloff, John Shiban and the rest of the series’ writers: While viewers might feel one or two deaths deeply, there will be countless “characters” who might not even appear in scenes on the ground and then, when they find themselves in combat, do so in cramped quarters, wearing masks and aerial caps — a difficult-to-distinguish sea of heroic young white men with mustaches. So the ensemble is vast, but in terms of characters I think Masters of the Air boasts fewer recognizable figures than Band of Brothers or The Pacific. Or maybe it just feels like it does.
Butler has the look of an actor who would be cast as a cocky flyboy in a 1940s movie, but Cleven is too smooth to give him much to play, especially after his love interest — Isabel May’s Marge — is introduced in the premiere and then never seen again. With the more volatile character, Turner quickly emerges as the show’s true star, especially in the second half, when he has individual episodes that let him briefly play romantic lead and action star. Theirs is a good and believable on-screen friendship, even if Turner is consistently the more interesting presence.
Matching Turner in terms of a season-long character arc is Anthony Boyle, exceptional as navigator Harry Crosby, who has ample room to mature and experience the torment of war after we first see him experiencing graphic and uncontrollable flight sickness.
Barry Keoghan delivers trademark mumbly, chip-on-the-shoulder brio as Curtis Biddick, a funny and easily irritated New Yorker. If Keoghan’s New York accent is a little hammy, there are so many strong British thespians doing inconsistent variations on American that you can’t bother being annoyed for long.
Other standouts include Nate Mann, whose Robert Rosenthal joins the 100th in the first group of reinforcements but becomes central to the season’s second half; Rafferty Law, boasting an uncanny and very appealing similarity to father Jude, as a plucky base mechanic; and Branden Cook, arriving in the closing episodes as a Tuskegee Airman. Though a few other actors make impressions, the most frequent phrase in my notes was, “Am I supposed to know who that was?”
Though you can expect Turner, Boyle and Mann to get the biggest career bumps out of Masters of the Air (Butler and Keoghan feel like they’re already onto that next stage), it’s primarily a triumph of production wizardry masterminded by Cary Joji Fukunaga, director of the first four episodes, and his top-notch followers behind the camera — Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, Dee Rees and Tim Van Patten.
The combat scenes suffer a tiny bit from a flight simulator/Star Wars kind of CG weightlessness; as jaw-dropping as the widescreen images of dozens of bombers and fighters soaring across the horizon tend to be, it’s the claustrophobic work within various turrets and cockpits that’s the most bracing. Even if continuity within the planes themselves — and of the squad within each attack campaign — comes and goes, the directors still capture the nightmare of this facet of the war as well as Band of Brothers depicted the freezing forests of Europe and The Pacific the brutality of island-hopping.
The series looks spectacular — kudos to the cinematography team, Chris Seagers’ production design and Colleen Atwood’s costumes — but as important as it may be to watch Masters of the Air on the biggest available screen, experiencing it on the cleanest and best sound system possible is even more essential. Sound designer Michael Minkler and Jack Whittaker thrust audiences into the echo-y steel tubes, making every hail of bullets, nerve-wracking explosion and eerie instrument failure count. Blake Neely’s score ties everything together and pushes all the right buttons when Masters of the Air wants to be sad or ominous or rah-rah rousing.
As was also the case with the predecessors, the show’s patriotism is rooted not in jingoism — there’s a little of that — but in nostalgia for a moment when ideology was shaped by moral imperatives instead of politics. It’s an invigorating, literally flag-waving affair, in which the only line of dialogue that might produce any controversy at all is in a foreign language and left untranslated. If you doubt your appetite for nine straight hours of uncomplicated American exceptionalism, all it takes is a few one-dimensionally nasty Nazis — still fewer than in your typical Twitter thread — to get in the mood.
Masters of the Air rather quickly becomes structurally repetitive — mission briefing, chaotic mission, mourning, hope for the war’s end, lather, rinse, repeat — and in attempting to vary that structure, there are missteps, especially as the writers try to expand the world beyond the homogenous central group.
Women are shoehorned into the story basically to screw the young flyers into an understanding of the world at large and the consequences of the war. The presence of a Joanna Kulig as a Polish woman hardened by the Nazi invasion, or a Bel Powley as a sparky Brit with secrets, helps elevate non-roles into underwritten characters. After a while, I lost track of the number of plucky and beautiful farmers’ daughters who show up to offer temptation or assistance without even getting names.
The injection of the Tuskegee Airmen in the penultimate episode is more forced and less successful, despite the immediate charisma provided by Cook, Josiah Cross and Ncuti Gatwa. One can easily imagine the excitement when the writers found a small pocket of overlap that let them acknowledge the 99th Pursuit Squadron, but making the Tuskegee Airmen into a tertiary storyline in one of nine episodes — and one of the few episodes to run under 50 minutes — borders on being worse than nothing. The Tuskegee Airmen clearly deserve better, as do the three featured actors from that “storyline,” notably Gatwa whose Doctor Who prominence has earned him placement in trailers despite his receiving probably fewer than five lines of dialogue.
The Tuskegee episode and the introduction of Powley’s glorified cameo come in the season’s home-stretch, which saw my interest waning a little before a 77-minute finale that hit almost all the dramatic notes that I craved. Masters of the Air isn’t always consistent and I don’t have a problem saying it’s only the third best of the Playtone-produced World War II dramas. But more often than not, it’s very good and when it’s very good, yes, it soars.
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