Masters of the Air
A sweeping WWII epic brings to life the American experience in the air, where boys became men amid the horrors of war.
You know that when Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and producer Gary Goetzman team up for a drama series they mean business.
All three produced Band of Brothers and the Australian-filmed The Pacific. Now they return to the trenches -or rather the skies- for Masters of the Air, based on Donald L. Miller’s book of the same name.
The 9 part series follows the men of the 100th Bomb Group (the “Bloody Hundredth”) who, during 1943 World War II, conducted bombing raids over Nazi strongholds.
Leading these combats are friends Maj. Gale ‘Buck’ Cleven (Austin Butler) and Major John ‘Bucky’ Egan (Callum Turner).
“We came from every corner of the country with one purpose, to bring the war to Hitler’s doorstep” Cleven tells us through his narration.
But their experience in the skies is limited, putting their wild days of women, gambling, drink behind them.
Skilled director Cary Joji Fukunaga (True Detective) brings the jeopardy early even just in negotiating flight landings in Greenland as the men travel from the US to Britain’s Thorpe Abbotts Air Base.
Anthony Boyle features as Lt. Harry Crosby a skilled navigator but one challenged by frequent air sickness. In these crude, uncomfortable mechanical birds it’s understandable. At such icy heights it’s easy to forget that a gunner’s hands can be ice-burned from placing his hands on the gun.
The top-heavy male cast also features Barry Keoghan, fresh from his star turn in Saltburn as Lt. Curtis Biddick.
While Maj Egan wants to be in the sky and not stuck behind a desk on the ground, it is Maj. Cleve who will have to command a perilous mission in the skies. Under such trying conditions Butler’s cool demeanour is well cast….
Warfare and dogfights are never far from the plot of this sweeping saga and the brutality is convincingly brought to bear in ways that are unforgiving, while putting money on the screen. The theatre of it all often upstages the acting in the foreground, but cleverly, there is also drama in each of the individual squads whether from human frailities or mechanical shortcomings.
There is room for levity in R&R and testosterone hijinks back at the base, as well as generously acknowledging the important of support crews such as those who are responsible for safe and functioning bombs loaded onto planes.
“In a way they were on every flight with us, and would not relax until we came home…”
When the Americans encounter the Brits there are clear divisions about -well- best bombing strategies. While the Brits bomb indiscriminately at night, the Americans stick to precision bombing at daytime, to the extreme point of even abandoning one attack for fear of hitting civilians and not a Nazi target. On this point the American storytelling by scriptwriter John Orloff adopts a fairly righteous position. Heck, even the theme music by Blake Neely is so red, white and blue, I feel like standing up and saluting.
Based on the two episodes available for preview without embargo, the series clearly dramatises the heroic American experience, of boys who were charged to become men, and some who never returned. On this front it is a striking achievement, if possibly at the expense of a wider lens.
Double episode premiere Friday, 26 January then weekly on Apple TV+.