‘Masters of the Air’ Review: A Beautiful Mess of a War Epic

As “Masters of the Air” nears its end, one surviving member of the Air Force’s “Bloody Hundredth” bombing group finds himself standing next to a fireplace, sipping on whiskey, and quoting the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. “Whoever fights monsters should take care not to become a monster himself,” he paraphrases for his fellow flyer, as they prepare to leave the war behind and return to their families. “Because if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes right back at you.”

In the moment, the sentiment is sound enough. Both men have experienced war, up close and personal, and both have been shaped by the harrowing combat all around them. It’s only natural to wonder what they’ll be like when they’re home, when they’re grounded, when the bombs are no longer dropping from the sky. Can they go back to their families, their wives, their kids, secure in what they’ve done and who they are now? These questions are profound, but the scene encapsulating them is not. “Masters of the Air” has no interest in complex cross-examinations of the soul, only paying them lip service, just as it has only a cursory interest in the Airmen within their uniforms.

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Despite its astonishing aerial assault sequences and unflinching respect for the aircrews involved, Apple’s pseudo-sequel to “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific” treats its characters like one-note action figures who regurgitate classic Hollywood war tropes. Their lack of specificity, of depth, of significant complications only exacerbates a sloppy story without a perspective beyond what the other guy in the room eventually says in reply: “They made us do some tough things, but we had to. There was no other way. The things [the Nazis] were capable of… they had it coming.”

And that’s where the conversation ends, literally and figuratively.

Going back a few steps, “Masters of the Air” is a work steeped in history. Based on Donald L. Miller’s 2007 book, “Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany,” the nine-episode limited series depicts World War II through the eyes of the pilots, navigators, and crew of the Air Force’s 100th Bomb Group — much like “Band of Brothers” saw the war from Easy Company’s perspective on the Western Front, and “The Pacific” traced the 1st Marine Division across the Pacific Ocean. All three series are executive produced by Gary Goetzman, Steven Spielberg, and Tom Hanks, forming a WWII TV trilogy of sorts, despite the original series being developed and released by HBO. (“Masters of the Air” was originally picked up by HBO, but moved to Apple Studios in 2019 as the tech titan’s first in-house production.)

Given the 15 Emmy wins (and 44 nominations) between the first two limited series (not to mention “Band of Brothers'” revered cultural status), “Masters of the Air” has a lot to live up to, and co-creators John Shiban and John Orloff assembled a cast, crew, and budget with ambitions to do just that. Like its predecessors, the ensemble consists of mostly young men yet to establish themselves as true stars. Exceptions arise from time to time, like Ncuti Gatwa surfacing as a Tuskegee fighter in the final two episodes, Barry Keoghan embodying a pilot whose landings are as agitating as his accent, or Bel Powley popping in as an under-explored love interest, but the bulk of the flyers are played by relative newcomers — save for Oscar nominee Austin Butler (who was cast before “Elvis” put him on the map).

Sawyer Spielberg in "Masters of the Air" sitting in the cockpit next to Austin Butler
Sawyer Spielberg in “Masters of the Air”Courtesy of Apple TV+

At first, it feels like Butler’s Gale “Buck” Cleven will fill a similar role as Richard “Dick” Winters in “Band of Brothers” (played by Damian Lewis) — a natural born leader of both the squad and the show, who ascends the ranks but never leaves his men behind. Just like Dick had Lewis Nixon (Ron Livingston), Buck’s best pal is John “Bucky” Egan (Callum Turner), a hard-drinking, life-of-the-party guy to compliment his bestie’s strong-and-silent demeanor. (Yes, they both go by Buck, and yes, it’s confusing.) But in the air, they’re consummate professionals, quality pilots, and fearless in the face of absolute chaos.

Much more flappable is Harry Crosby (Anthony Boyle), a navigator whose airsickness nearly gets him killed during the first mission, and who slowly, awkwardly assumes the show’s lead role. Providing sporadic narration meant to patch up the holes left by flimsy episodic structure, Crosby soon embodies the poor character development throughout “Masters of the Air.” Despite skewing closely to reported history — overcoming early struggles and costly mistakes to become an integral part of the squad — the onscreen specifics of Crosby’s evolution lend him little sympathy; sympathy he needs later on, when his choices prove flabbergasting and hard to justify. By the time he’s given a lengthy arc about how arduous it can be to stay up late making flight plans in the relative safety of home base — while pilots are either being shot out of the sky or imprisoned as POWs — the pity and support given to Crosby by his peers aren’t felt by the audience at home. Of course his dedication to his men is admirable, but that can’t be the sole motivation for elevating this character above all the rest, especially when everyone in “Masters of the Air” carries the same attribute.

Most renderings are similarly stunted. Buck No. 1 never emerges from a cloud of cliches. Buck No. 2 (“Bucky“) bounces sporadically between resourceful comrade and distraught screw-up. Others don’t have enough time to leave a mark, including the proudly introduced but quickly abandoned Tuskegee Airmen and every woman with a speaking part (so, roughly, four people). “Masters of the Air” takes off during some of its many, many aerial firefights — the visual effects are spot-on, the visceral sensation of being in the cockpit fully realized — but it’s hard not to wish you felt a stronger investment toward the people trapped in those flying tin cans. If all the series has to say about war is, “it’s hell, but we had to do it,” then at least craft your characters with the same rich details brought to your battles.

Ultimately, the fatal flaw lies in its episodic storytelling, where sound structure and considered perspectives could’ve gone a long way. Yes, the action scenes are stunning in their detailed execution and immersive design. But they also get repetitive after nine hourlong episodes, and while I’m sure all those rapid redeployments may have blurred into one long, exhausting mission for the real-life Airmen, it shouldn’t feel that way for an audience (nor is the idea that it felt repetitive a position introduced by the show).

“Masters of the Air” too often seems like a long movie — which is exactly what “Band of Brothers” was not. In the original series, each hour is framed by testimonials from surviving veterans, before ending with a significant quotation or epilogue. In between, the story pivots around a single character. Remember the episode set in basic training, with David Schwimmer’s tyrannical, inept captain? What about the episode in the snow, centered around a medic, that begins with a shot of his pricked, bleeding finger and ends with him wrapping a fellow soldier’s wounded hand? Or the episode told largely in flashback, as Dick types up a report on recent casualties, and the clickety-clack of his typewriter fades into the rat-a-tat sound of gunfire? These moments, episodes, and characters are memorable because they’re vividly realized and clearly distinguished. The only thing vivid and clear about “Masters of Air” is the cinematography (which, again, is beautiful).

“Band of Brothers” emerged from Hanks and Spielberg’s collaboration on “Saving Private Ryan.” Even after making a three-hour war movie with an expansive cast and considerable scope, they (presumably) realized there were still left plenty of stories left untold. TV provides so much time to honor those stories, as “Band of Brothers,” “The Pacific,” and “Masters of the Air” intend to do with their deeply respectful odes to American heroism. But the third part of the trilogy is over-invested in recreating what we’ve seen before and under-invested in what made those previous series so impactful. It’s not the carnage or the spectacle. It’s the men. And the men in “Masters of the Air” never come down to earth.

Grade: C

“Masters of the Air” premieres Friday, January 26 on Apple TV+ with two episodes. New episodes will be released weekly through the finale on March 15.

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