Home Entertainment Review | ‘Masters of the Air’ aims high — and bombs

Review | ‘Masters of the Air’ aims high — and bombs

Review | ‘Masters of the Air’ aims high — and bombs


Reviewing being a subjective business, it’s sometimes necessary for a critic to divulge their personal preferences so readers can calibrate accordingly. I would like to state for the record, therefore, that I have no knowledge of — or interest in — aviation. Or military history. The best thing I can say about “Masters of the Air,” John Orloff’s technically impressive mash note to the “bomber boys” of the 100th Bomb Group, is that it drove me in desperation to read some of the Donald Miller book on which it’s based. And that I’m now as fascinated by the subject as I am puzzled by all the show didn’t do, given that extremely rich source material.

“Masters of the Air,” the third World War II miniseries Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg have backed (along with “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific”), explores the challenges American airmen faced as their superiors used them to test theories on how best to use the country’s enormous B-17s against the Germans. The “Bloody Hundredth” was aptly nicknamed; fewer than a quarter of those in the Eighth Air Force in October 1943 would finish their 25 missions.

The show, which begins streaming Friday on Apple TV Plus, takes a two-pronged approach to its subject. The first amounts to a kind of stringently immersive realism. Flight scenes are pitched to B-17 aficionados who will no doubt relish the exquisite detail with which some missions are rendered. There are loving close-ups of planes, equipment, bombs and instrument panels without much hand-holding as to who sits where or what they do. The first couple of episodes challenge viewers with long flight sequences in which characters we’ve barely met communicate in shorthand that I, a rank amateur, often couldn’t follow, their voices muffled and faces obscured by oxygen masks. Strategies are minimally explained and the action inside — who just got shot? which plane is this? — is tricky to track.

Overwhelmed and a little at sea (so to speak), this viewer combed these scenes for cinematic clues to whatever the narrative takeaway would be. We all know, for instance, that an epic, beautifully scored shot of military planes and the ebullient young men about to board is almost always an elegy for the deaths to come. While watching a mission that began in just that way, I looked for hints as to who would die. I was (to my delight) foiled — the cinematic stuff was misdirection, and the mission ends with an addlepated navigator getting promoted because of his mistakes.

I took that as an early sign that “Masters of the Air” was in dialogue with the massive archive of existing World War II shows and movies — and invested in unseating some of its more familiar tropes.

Careening between these disorienting fits of realism and parodically on-the-nose World War II clichés, “Masters of the Air” sometimes feels almost as paradoxical as the plane its protagonists flew. The B-17 was a behemoth capable of penetrating deep into enemy territory and celebrated for its ability to withstand attacks. But the “Flying Fortress” turned out to be surprisingly vulnerable unless it was flown in tight formations (or with fighters for protection); its aluminum “skin” could be pierced by a screwdriver. And despite its enormous size, the crews were packed in closer than they would have been on a submarine.

These are striking and provocative contradictions. So is the gap between the B-17’s much-touted precision at hitting targets and the indiscriminate “city-busting” operations it would eventually be used for in Germany.

So, for that matter, is the tragically narrow window in military history this series implicitly describes. The bomber boys were put through the aerial equivalent of a meat grinder — all to refine a military strategy that would become almost immediately irrelevant. As author and historian Miller puts it: “The technology needed to fight a prolonged, full-scale bomber war was not available until the early 1940s and, by the closing days of that first-ever bomber war, was already being rendered obsolete by jet engine aircraft, rocket-powered missiles, and atomic bombs.”

That’s tragic. It is also not, in any sense, what the show is about. The unique challenges the bomber boys faced — the life-threatening cold, the emergence of aviation medicine, the psychic whiplash of surviving a firefight over Berlin in the morning and ending the night dancing at a London bar — none of that is explored in much depth.

Nor does the show register much interest in the ethical conundrums this form of warfare posed. There are no substantive critiques of the higher-ups who sent so many of these men to slaughter and few real objections to the tactics the bombardment group ended up using.

The miniseries confines itself, instead, to the private experiences of four men. There’s Major John “Bucky” Egan (Callum Turner), a messy and impulsive party animal who doubles as a consummate pilot and dutiful commander of the 418th squadron, and his close friend Major Gale “Buck” Cleven, a teetotaler whom Austin Butler plays as so impossibly beautiful and cool, he’s barely human; one waits in vain for the veneer (and the accent) to crack. Yup, that’s one “Buck” and one “Bucky.” A hapless navigator named Harry Crosby (Anthony Boyle) provides some sporadic voice-over and comic relief, and Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal (Nate Mann), a latecomer to the story, starts to seem like a protagonist, albeit one who never registers any qualities aside from loyalty, duty, courage and competence. Minor characters include Lt. Curtis Biddick (Barry Keoghan), a New Yorker with a mean right hook; Alexandra Wingate (Bel Powley), a charming but shifty British agent; and the Tuskegee Airmen, who get a dutiful, embarrassingly brief cameo, with Ncuti Gatwa playing 2nd Lt. Robert H. Daniels.

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If that all sounds a little, oh, flat — and constitutive of yet another simplified ode to heroes and brotherhood — I can only suggest watching the show’s title sequence, which clocks in at an astonishing 153 seconds. I was maybe 40 or so into the montage of men caressing equipment and looking cool in aviators — interlaced with desaturated shots of planes, and bombs, and boys dancing with girls — when I started to experience something akin to semantic satiation, that feeling when your grip on a word’s meaning dims from hearing it repeated. I have never seen a more savage sendup of World War II clichés. It feels so much like a parody, I can’t quite believe it isn’t one.

That said, tropes exist for a reason. “Masters of the Air” is extremely moving in parts in just the ways you would expect. It’s brilliant at spectacle, and it would stand as a touching depiction of friendship if there weren’t higher stakes and a bigger context. But in its zeal to wrap history around colorful personalities, the show does the reverse. There are no arcs. And there are no arguments.

Well, there’s one: a spat between Egan and an insufferable British airman in which it is suggested that the cowardly English advocated bombing at night — even if it meant hitting civilians — whereas the Americans flew in daylight, nobly risking death to hit their targets and spare the innocent. “It doesn’t matter what we hit, as long as it’s German,” the villainous Brit says, smugly.

In that scene, the Brit’s critique of American military leaders provides a pretext for the Americans to rise to their superiors’ defense and school the English in the street. But the (rather urgent) philosophical disagreement is never developed, hashed out or resolved. In fact, when this allegedly “American” position is reversed, the main function of that scene is to illustrate one character’s grief over a personal loss. When someone posits later in the series that fighting monsters risks making you a monster, too, someone else points out — in a way that closes the question as well as the scene — that the Nazis are very bad and something had to be done.

The show, as a whole, reproduces this tendency to deflect rather than argue. A few faraway shots of the horrors American bombers rained down on innocent German civilians are counteracted by reminders that these Germans are bad, complete with close-ups of the violence enacted by angry German villagers and an extended tour of a concentration camp. One promising moment, when a P-51 turns up and starts shooting at some Germans who happen to be holding a couple of our heroes captive, seemed poised to finally put the bomber boys in the terrified, cowering position of the bombed as they gazed up at the aircraft from below. I can’t really describe my shock at the turn that scene takes instead.

Miller’s book offers a blunt and fairly unforgiving assessment of what American military strategists put the 100th through. It’s unclear why “Masters of the Air” strips out most of that critique, electing to focus on individual heroism. That choice has one unfortunate, counterintuitive effect: Because the show focuses on survivors, it sometimes ends up radically underplaying what the 100th suffered. I’ve thought a lot about a scene in which a doctor shows Cleven a man’s frostbite injuries. They look painful and serious but not horrifying; the skin looks pink and distressed. The scene’s function is to acknowledge the frostbite issue in a reassuring way. Cleven is solicitous. The man will be sent to a good hospital. The doctor seems proactive, taking Cleven aside and warning him: “They have got to remember where they are. It is 25,000 feet and 50 below zero. P— freezes against their skinfThese sorts of casualties are unnecessary losses for the group.”

In practice, the cold was a constant, truly life-threatening problem no amount of remembering could remedy. During a 14-month period ending in December 1943, severe cold injuries removed 1,634 members of the Eighth Air Force from flight duty (compared to 1,207 wounded by the Germans). And while there were good doctors, the airmen were also subjected to real neglect. Oxygen masks, for instance, failed often enough that over half of fliers experienced some form of anoxia. In his book, Miller is clear that this was the result of “inexcusable poor planning” and blamed higher-ups “more concerned with bombing strategy than with preparing crews to survive.” One doctor, acknowledging that no one had contemplated “operating at such extreme heights,” said — of crews getting enough air to breathe — “there are apparently little things that one doesn’t think about before getting into operations.”

But “Masters of the Air” is a little too decorous to get into all that. Its heroes aren’t rebels or victims. They’re archetypes. The technology is the real star here; the B-17s are as period-perfect as they are immense. As for the story — well, at 25,000 feet, maybe it doesn’t matter that it’s almost as thin as the air.

Masters of the Air (nine episodes) is now streaming on Apple TV Plus with Episodes 1 and 2. New episodes will stream weekly.


A previous version of this review referred to a B-51. The aircraft is a P-51. The article has been corrected.


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