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+.

6 Responses

  1. As someone who enjoyed watching a good WWII yarn, (usually from the 50’s and 60’s) this show has been a while arriving, but you must admire the dedication of Hanks and Spielberg to finish this American WWII trilogy in such expensive style courtesy of Apple TV+, the production budget would have deterred many producers. If what I read is correct Apple TV+ should gain a few more subscribers just to watch this series, so the final viewing figures for Masters of the Air will be interesting data, though in all likelihood this was not a major consideration for the producers who just want to honour the memory of these American flyers in American history. It’s a shame that the same could not be done for Bomber Command as well, over 4000 RAAF crew perished flying on these WWII bomber raids.

    1. Much cheaper and easier to do the extensive CGI needed these days vs 10 or 20 years ago. Peter Jackson was supposed to be doing a remake of some sort of Dambusters but that hasn’t eventuated and nothing on the horizon unfortunately.

      1. Yes, Peter Jackson had some Avro Lancaster bomber replicas built (though only one was completely essembled to test out a new digital camera n NZ), after that all ten bomber mock-ups were put into long term storage so Peter Jackson was serious making the Dambusters film. If these replicas haven’t now been scrapped they could be used for a Bomber Command series, however Jackson is very taciturn about his ideas and plans, but it would be sad if all the initial money spent and creative effort done come to nothing. Jackson still has American aircraft collector Kermit Weeks loaned rear gun turret so I guess he had better return that too.

    2. Having watched episode one of Masters of the Air I was quite taken back when the opening flying scene was an almost frame for frame reproduction of the only bombing mission featured in the 1946 British movie ‘Journey Together’, made for the RAF, the only difference was that the battle damaged British Lancaster in Journey Together ditched in the sea and the crew were saved by the accurate ditching position sent by the navigator, played by a young Richard Attenborough, the USAAF B-17 managed to return to base. I guess the writers must have been researching a number of WWII era propaganda documentary films when developing their screenplay. Overall the beginning of this series is a refreshing change as far as period dramas are concerned, hopefully it will continue.

  2. Has to be said that this is a very well covered aspect of WW2 in film and TV over the years in comparison to the RAF Bomber Command story-only film that gets much of a viewing now is ‘The Dambusters’ and that’s nearly 70 years old.

  3. I think Band of Brothers is the best mini-series i’ve ever seen, so I will definitely be giving this a go. Apple TV + doesn’t have a lot of content included with your subscription, but what they do have the do very well.

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