A B-17 Flying Fortress just came to a stop on the runway, medical crews rushing a badly wounded gunner into an ambulance. The surviving bomber crews stagger out of the other planes, battered and bleeding. And only then does the camera spin around to show the state of the Fort. Bits of the wings are ripped off, the fuselage is riddled with bullet holes and shrapnel damage. One or two engines are barely intact. How the plane was able to fly is anyone’s guess. And this isn’t the worst possible outcome. Welcome to the air war. Welcome to Masters of the Air.
Masters of the Air is the latest show from producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, their followup to 2001’s Band of Brothers and 2010’s The Pacific. The show, based on Donald Miller’s book of the same name and the memoirs of the real-life figures in it, has the unenviable task of following the two beloved World War II series. Instead of the fields of Normandy on D-Day or the beaches of Iwo Jima, the show is about a lesser-known conflict, where the big battles are giant dogfights, not jungle warfare or urban combat. And to its credit, Masters of the Air isn’t trying to be either one of its predecessors.
As a whole, it isn’t as good as Band of Brothers of The Pacific, but is a compelling series with its own rhythm and charm. That is, once it finds its footing.
This article contains mild spoilers for Masters of the Air.
The series follows the members of the 8th Air Force’s 100th Bomb Group, nicknamed the “Bloody Hundredth” for their high casualty rate. When not in the skies, they’re hard partying mavericks, half military men, half movie stars to the people around them. If it were not backed up by the historical record and showrunner John Orloff’s own extensive research it would feel excessive, but it turns out they really were like this. There’s the air-sick navigator Harry Crosby(Anthony Boyle), the rascally Curtis Biddick (Barry Keoghan), and their long-suffering young chief mechanic, Ken Lemmons (Raff Law).
Leading them all in the skies are Majors John “Bucky” Egan (Callum Turner) and Gale “Buck” Cleven (Austin Butler, still using his Elvis voice). Egan is a hard-drinking, sports-loving ladies’ man, eager for brawling and action, while his best friend Cleven is a teetotaler and more restrained, although he is every bit as stubborn as Egan.
The first two episodes give the show a rough start. Narrated by Crosby, the two-part premiere has to introduce the leads, show how a bombing mission works, and hammer home the brutality of the air war. And it succeeds, if in a clumsy way. It’s broad, with equal enough scenes of the bomber crews drinking and flirting with the local women and them on a mission. It suggests a repetitive show, with each episode partying while in the officer’s club, waiting for the mission light to switch on, brutal combat, and then scenes of Egan and Cleven pondering what it all means.
Thankfully the show shakes things up fast. Drawing on some of the most dramatic missions the 100th flew, the third and fourth episodes quickly change the show’s status quo, upping the stakes and bringing out some real emotion. Just avoid watching the show’s opening credits, which are rife with spoilers for later episodes.
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Masters of the Air does not shy away from how utterly scary flying a bombing mission can be. The crews of the Forts are flying deep into enemy territory, heading directly into the path of massive flak barrages and then enemy fighter planes. Each flight is essentially a suicide mission that they have to do at an increasing frequency. It’s survival, death, or the threat of spending the war inside a prisoner of war camp. And if they do survive, any return to base immediately starts with being whisked away to interrogation to relieve the traumatic mission all over again. The survival part is a big uncertainty. An actor’s star power won’t save them and many of the 100th on screen won’t last long.
It’s here that Masters of the Air is at its best. The show hammers home both the horrifying nature of flying a bombing run alongside the importance of how a successful mission can bring massive damage to the German war effort. As the series goes on, the gap between the mission light turning on gets shorter and shorter, and the initial cast of the show gets thinner and thinner as pilots and crew start dying. The show’s focus starts to expand as well, following branching threads that take unexpected turns. Once the show finds its pace and flow in the third episode it really starts to work. It’s not Band of Brothers or The Pacific, but instead, it carves out its own unique approach.
But due to the high turnover of crews, it’s hard to get too attached to many characters on the show. There are only a handful of major ones, and the show’s two leads don’t quite live up to the challenge. It’s not that Egan and Cleven aren’t interesting, it’s just that the show introduces them as larger-than-life expert pilots with different styles and then they never really change. They also don’t work as the heroic leaders that history and the show present them as, if only because there aren’t many moments showing them earn the respect and awe the rest of the 100th has for them. The problem is there isn’t much chemistry between the two leads. They lack the warmth and camaraderie between seemingly opposite figures that Band of Brothers’ Dick Winters and Lewis Nixon had. While Turner has some strong interactions with the rest of the cast, Butler mostly falls flat.
The show fares better when it comes to the supporting and secondary characters. Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal, a replacement pilot who finds himself up against overwhelming odds, is a much more compelling figure. As played by Nate Mann, he has the character arc and gravitas, as well as humanity, that Egan and Cleven lack. It’s through Rosie’s eyes that the audience gets some of the strongest scenes in the show, both in aerial combat and in the emotional consequences of it.
Even when his narration isn’t the most compelling, Crosby’s increasingly hangdog expression and steely determination to keep the B-17 crews alive shines through, especially as the Allies move closer to an invasion of the continent. Other characters feel underserved, such as Lemmons, whose struggles with keeping the 100th up and running get only passing attention.
On a technical level, the series is an accomplishment. Each dogfight and bombing mission feels unique, and the combination of practical sets and digital effects gives them more heft than a CGI-only production. When an air wing forms up, it’s a sight to behold on screen. And in the hands of Orloff’s scripts, the way the show expands its scope to German stalags and missions flown by the Tuskegee Airmen, feels natural, even if the pacing leaves a little to be desired.
But when Masters of the Air works, it soars. Even if it is not as good as its predecessors, it stands on its own as a compelling, oftentimes thrilling depiction of an underlooked part of World War II.
The first two episodes of Masters of the Air premiere Friday, Jan. 26 on Apple TV+, with the rest of the series airing weekly after that.
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