TV: Masters of the Air

With the weight of Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, and Apple behind it, Masters of the Air follows in the grand docudrama tradition of Band of Brothers and The Pacific. In different ways, those two classics were revelatory explorations of one of the world’s most devastating conflicts. As a hyped, unofficial sequel tackling a new angle, Masters of the Air has much to live up to, and while it doesn’t quite match the power and impact of its predecessors, it’s finely made, delving into another harrowing arena of World War II combat and its unique psychological ramifications.

Like Band of Brothers, Masters of the Air focuses on a specific military unit in the European theater at the height of the war. Here, it’s the 100th Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force, which figured prominently in the England-based air assault against Nazi targets on the continent. The poster boys for the 100th are Gale “Buck” Cleven (Austin Butler) and John “Bucky” Egan (Callum Turner), best friends who enter the war among its most confident and capable flyers. The airmen of the 100th are a cocky, idealistic lot going in, bombing by day and drinking by night to blow off steam following their terrifying experiences in the skies. But as the experience takes its toll—physically and psychologically—they find their naïve, early expectations of glory eroding under the reality of high-stakes fighting that ends only in survivor’s guilt, capture, combat fatique, injury, or death.

Masters of the Air is based on a nonfiction book by Donald L. Miller, and it undertakes to chronicle as many elements of the air war as it can. This includes not just the missions themselves, but the downtime in-between—back at the base, on leave in England, at recovery hospitals—and the aftermath for those shot down, fleeing for their lives with the Resistance or winding up in prisoner-of-war camps. (This last points to the historical background that fueled The Great Escape.) In the ambition of its goals, it perhaps tries to do too much, with peripheral subplots: for example, an Englishwoman (Bel Powley) who serves as a spy in occupied France; an unsung hero mechanic, Sgt. Ken Lemmons (Raff Law); and a trio of late-introduced Black Tuskegee airmen (Branden Cook, Josiah Cross, and Ncuti Gatwa). There’s nothing wrong with any of these threads, which laudably attempt to cover important details, but since none of them are afforded time to flourish, they feel undercooked. The focus mostly stays with the two dashing leads, along with a handful of supporting performers like Anthony Boyle (as unlikely, accomplished navigator Harry Crosby) and Nate Mann (as standout replacement pilot Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal). Like many war epics, there’s a bit of interchangeable white-guy syndrome going on—an issue the main characters’ nicknames only serves to exacerbate. Everyone does well enough by the material, to be sure, but Boyle is the only one who brings real personality to the table.

Band of Brothers eye-openingly showed the horrors of war through the intense, bonded teamwork of its elite heroes; in some ways, The Pacific felt like a corrective, focusing more on the harrowing downsides as it followed individual infantrymen through unimaginable sacrifices in the brutal Pacific theater. I expected Masters of the Air to fall somewhere on the spectrum between these two tacks—the former’s emotionally gripping pomp and circumstance, the latter’s unvarnished, deglamorizing realism—and that’s what I got: unit-cohesion camaraderie on the one hand, shattered idealism and rude awakenings on the other. Ultimately, the trend is more Band of Brothers than The Pacific, concerned more with the nobility of the enterprise and its unifying bonds than the physical and emotional costs of war. Since the bromance of Buck and Bucky is the primary throughline, their mutual story is key to the emotional resonance of the series—and since they emerge relatively unchanged (despite everything), Masters of the Air feels flatter and more distancing than its predecessors—something that may be deliberate, accounting for the ephemeral, unreal nature of the bombing runs. Compared to expectations, it’s disappointing, but even so it’s a classy, accomplished production that succeeds as an enlightening glimpse of incredible historical events, and a capsule education on less-examined aspects of the war.

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