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‘Masters of the Air’ review: The story of WWII bomber pilots, from Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg

Nina Metz – Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg first teamed up, as actor and director, on 1998′s “Saving Private Ryan.” For the last 25 years, they have continued that ongoing interest in World War II with a partnership behind the camera as producers. Their series “Band of Brothers” came out in 2001, followed by “The Pacific” in 2010, both for HBO. Their latest big-budget endeavor is the nine-episode “Masters of the Air” for Apple TV+, about World War II bomber pilots who flew over Europe.

Austin Butler (only fitfully casting aside the twang that lingered after his Oscar-nominated turn in “Elvis”) stars alongside a cast of British and Irish actors attempting their own American accents (“Saltburn’s” Barry Keoghan among them), plus a couple of nepo babies, with Sawyer Spielberg and Rafferty Law, the latter being the son of Jude Law and Sadie Frost.

They are part of the 100th Bomb Group, which is not just pilots but gunners and navigators and ground crew. There’s a rhythm to the missions: They’re flying for eight hours or so and it’s a nightmare, heading straight into anti-aircraft artillery and taking hits from the German Luftwaffe. Mechanical malfunctions are common and sometimes have nothing to do with the gunfire. It’s freezing and cramped inside the planes (I would have liked more attention to detail on some of those more banal logistics). Bullets rip through the outer shell of the B-17s, often striking the crew. Planes are downed. Or blow up midair. If the crew manages to parachute out in time, they have to worry about being caught behind enemy lines and becoming prisoners of war. The odds of surviving a mission were not on their side.

But if they were lucky, they made it back to base, where they could eat a hot meal, unwind with a drink and sleep on a bed with a pillow. That’s more than most infantry grunts could hope for. It was a familiar place, at least. Still, many of them struggled.

If another plane got hit during a mission, nearby crews would crane their necks to see if anyone bailed out. But sometimes the chaos of a raid was too gnarly to keep an eye on what’s happening, leading to a haunting scene where the lone crew to survive a raid is asked, as the names missing planes are read out: “Any chutes?” The men are numb and filled with shame, unable to answer.

Actor James Stewart served as a bomber pilot during the war and watching the series reminded me of a conversation I had a while back with author Robert Matzen, who wrote about Stewart’s war service: “He went flak-happy on a couple of occasions, which means shell shock, battle fatigue, what we now know as PTSD. He wasn’t afraid of bombs or bullets. He was afraid of making a mistake and causing someone to die.”

Stewart doesn’t show up in “Masters of the Air,” which comes from creator John Orloff (who also wrote for “Band of Brothers”), but the characters are based on real people.

Butler and Callum Turner play close friends and the 100th Bomb Group’s swaggering center of gravity as Majors Gale Cleven (nicknamed Buck) and John Egan (nicknamed Bucky). Buck’s style is low-key confidence; Bucky’s is more devil-may-care. We meet them in 1943 when they ship out to England. Butler has an understated movie star quality that keeps your attention, but too many of the other characters are indistinguishable. Some get more screen time than others; a lot of men died on these missions. Keoghan brings a street-wise energy to his role (his performance is very charming despite his shaky New Yawk-ese). Nate Mann plays a lawyer-turned-pilot who not only lived through the required 25 missions (few made it that far) but reupped for a second tour.

Another key player is Anthony Boyle’s navigator. Initially a liability due to his airsickness, he becomes an essential figure on base once his superiors put him behind a desk. He’s known simply by his last name, Crosby, and he provides the show’s occasional voice-over narration. The story has no primary point-of-view character and plenty happens when Crosby is not around, so the voice-overs tend to be random and disjointed.

The Tuskegee Airmen make an appearance (one of whom is played by Ncuti Gatwa, the new lead of “Doctor Who”) but it’s not until the second-to-last episode. It’s cringeworthy to reduce these pilots to a footnote.

There are extended portions that take place in prisoner of war camps (one of which is an overt nod to 1963′s “The Great Escape”) but precious few moments of moral introspection. It’s Crosby who tiptoes closest to that line: “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster,” he says, quoting Nietzsche. His friend just shrugs. “They had it coming.” The reality of war is fraught and ugly and deserves more contemplation than it gets here.

The first four episodes are directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (“No Time to Die”) and it’s visceral stuff, despite the overuse of composer Blake Neely’s insistently John Williams-esque score. The bombing raids do not need urgent orchestrations to juice the drama, they are terrifying enough on their own.

It’s such a high-gloss stylistic misstep, but it’s also why the series (adapted from Donald L. Miller’s nonfiction book “Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany”) comes across as just a higher quality version of what you might find on the History Channel. There’s a sizable audience for that sort of thing. Fair enough.

World War II is certainly in the zeitgeist, with “Oppenheimer” and the film “The Zone of Interest” both nabbing a best picture Oscar nomination this week. Apple has yet another series premiering next month set during this era called “The New Look,” about what fashion designers Christian Dior and Coco Chanel were up to during the war. The Hulu limited series “We Were the Lucky Ones,” about a Jewish family separated during the Holocaust, comes in March.

I’m not enamored with stories of war, and “Masters of the Air” isn’t either, necessarily. But it is intent on turning them into entertainment. The leather and shearling jackets they all wear have a function — to keep everyone from freezing while thousands of feet up — but the show seems almost delighted that they happen look cool, as well.

Reservations aside, the series worked like gangbusters on me for a different reason: It’s focused on capturing what it looks like — what it means, really — to work toward a common goal. To feel a deep sense of responsibility for one another. As that plays out over nine episodes, you can’t help but reflect on that absence of these kinds of stories coming out of Hollywood.



3 stars (out of 4)

Rating: TV-MA

How to watch: On Apple TV+ Friday


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