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Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks Revisit WWII With the Thrilling, if Spotty Masters of the Air

The Apple TV+ series is more a loose collection of exciting, emotionally resonant moments than a unified epic.
  • Austin Butler in Masters of the Air (Photo: Apple TV+)
    Austin Butler in Masters of the Air (Photo: Apple TV+)

    When Band of Brothers debuted on HBO — on September 9, 2001, two days before a devastating, epochal terrorist attack on American soil — the miniseries felt like the culmination of a whole era of World War II myth-making. Band of Brothers plays like a companion piece to its producer Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning 1998 hit Saving Private Ryan, which itself came out the same year as Tom Brokaw’s bestselling book The Greatest Generation.

    All of these projects — the book, the movie, the TV show — venerated the men who fought the Nazis, while also acknowledging that their heroism came at a steep personal cost. HBO’s 2010 sequel miniseries The Pacific (released after a grueling decade in “the war on terror”) reiterated that theme, showing how violence and loss leaves an indelible stain on a soldier’s soul, even when their cause is just.

    Apple TV+’s Masters of the Air (debuting with two episodes on January 26) is even grimmer than its predecessors. Like Band of Brothers and The Pacific, it’s a collaboration between the production companies Playtone and Amblin, headed up by Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and Gary Goetzman. And once again it features a cast of talented actors playing a group of fighting men who have their illusions of wartime heroism shattered by the grinding realities of combat.

    Adapted by the writer-producer John Orloff and his team from Donald L. Miller’s historical account Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany, the limited series follows the triumphs and tragedies of the Eighth Air Force’s 100th Bomb Group, nicknamed “the Bloody Hundredth” because of how many people and planes were lost during its bombing campaigns, especially in the summer of 1943. Most of the show’s nine episodes are set during that summer, as the crews who arrived at a Norfolk, England air-base full of confidence saw one comrade after another get shot out of the sky.

    How do you make massive casualties into compelling TV? It doesn’t hurt to cast a couple of movie stars — or to hire a skilled stylist like the It and True Detective director Cary Joji Fukunaga to helm the first four episodes.

    The biggest name in the Masters of the Air cast is Elvis’ leading man Austin Butler, playing Major Gale Cleven, a laconic, level-headed pilot who arrives at the 100th alongside his best buddy, the more hot-headed Major John Egan (Callum Turner). They quickly befriend Lieutenant Curtis Biddick (Barry Keoghan), a charismatic pilot with a cheery disposition; and they come to rely on Major Harry Crosby (Anthony Boyle), a nervous but diligent navigator. After the division suffers some major attrition, it sees the arrival of Major Robert Rosenthal (Nate Mann), whose crews prove uncommonly successful.

    But yeah, about that attrition….

    What’s both admirable and frustrating about Masters of the Air is that, just as in wartime, characters can die or disappear abruptly, regardless of who they are. Just because a flyboy is played by an Oscar nominee — or is a central figure in multiple episodes — doesn’t mean their plane won’t get shot down.

    These losses keep Masters of the Air from getting a good episode-to-episode narrative flow going. Storylines that initially seem important get truncated or abandoned. At its best, the series overcomes this problem by dedicating entire episodes mostly to one story — as in the remarkable “Chapter Three,” which covers one nerve-wracking bombing run from start to finish. But for the most part, the show is more a loose collection of exciting, emotionally resonant moments than a unified epic.

    Also somewhat confounding is the limited series’ overall tone, which swings between harsh realism and rip-roaring, Hollywood-style WWII adventure. Butler and Keoghan excel at the latter. They have the faces and dispositions of old studio contract players: Butler channeling strong, silent types like Gary Cooper and Robert Mitchum; and Keoghan bringing some Burgess Meredith/James Whitmore energy. Boyle, meanwhile, is a revelation as Crosby, whose character feels more modern, as he copes with survivor’s guilt and burnout.

    These actors never entirely feel like they’re in the same series, though. Some are in an old-fashioned story about buddies fighting together to the end. Others are in a stark cautionary tale. There’s a frustrating choppiness to the storytelling.

    Yet while Masters of the Air is the spottiest of the Playtone/Amblin WWII trilogy, all three series remain the kind of polished, pricey projects that give prestige television a good name. They’re all thoughtful and exhilarating in equal measure. In the case of Masters of the Air, some of the credit is due to Fukunaga, whose work on the early episodes establishes a context for the show’s quieter, more character-driven scenes by emphasizing the chaos of aerial combat.

    A lot of money has been spent on the Masters of the Air special effects; and the effects team uses those resources well, staging bombing runs that look fast-paced and nightmarish. These huge aircrafts — fat targets, all — bull their way through flak, fighter jet fire, the debris of exploded planes, and the bodies of parachuting comrades. What Fukunaga and company get across is that no matter how well-organized the American forces may have been, these bombing missions were almost impossible to execute with any reasonable degree of safety and precision.

    It didn’t help that the missions in the early months were plagued with jammed equipment, inexperienced crews, bad intelligence and broken promises. Some of the most memorable parts of Masters of the Air deal with the practical realities of fighting a war from the skies: what it’s like to get shot at while nested inside a gun-turret; what it’s like to crash-land; what it’s like to bail out; and what it’s like to get captured behind enemy lines. The series depicts these airmen’s lives as one long struggle to get a grasp on just what the hell is going on.

    In addition to Fukunaga, Masters of the Air has two episodes directed Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (including one that steps away from the war to follow Rosenthal and Crosby on R&R), two directed by Dee Rees (including one featuring the Tuskegee Airmen) and a finale directed by Tim Van Patten (who focuses mainly on POWs marching deeper into enemy territory during the last days of the Nazi regime). These four are accomplished film and TV directors who follow neatly in Fukunaga’s footsteps, maintaining a consistently high visual quality.

    To some extent Masters of the Air is coasting: on the reputation of Band of Brothers and The Pacific; on the talent of its cast and directors; and on the public’s enduring fascination with WWII, the last relatively uncomplicated “good” war. (If nothing else, this series should be a hit among the “dads who are history buffs” demographic… which could just be shortened to “dads.”) But like the campaigns it depicts, it succeeds with brute force. The show may be sloppy and unwieldy; but it just keeps firing away, until resistance feels futile.

    New episodes of Masters of the Air drop Wednesdays on Apple TV+. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Noel Murray is a freelance pop culture critic and reporter living in central Arkansas.

    TOPICS: Masters of the Air, Apple TV+, Austin Butler, Barry Keoghan, Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks