Masters of the Air Is Old-School Spectacle at Its Finest
The star-studded World War II drama takes flight through sheer force of charisma.
Rarely is war as simple as a matter of good guys and bad guys. But if we’re lucky, there can still be heroes.
Enter: Masters of the Air, the third World War II drama series from Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and producer Gary Goetzman for Apple TV+. In similar tradition to previous Spielberg/Hanks “Dad TV” productions Band of Brothers and The Pacific — both prolific contributors to the prestige HBO once commanded — Masters of the Air is a beautifully rendered and often thrilling vision of uncomplicated heroism. Despite clumsy plotting and some nauseating propagandistic navel-gazing, Masters of the Air resists stale cliches and instead turns in a genuinely uplifting portrait of American idealism, complete with the most impressive white-knuckle aerial combat ever crafted for the small screen. Like fine whiskey, the show’s bursts of violence go down smooth, leaving one buzzing for more.
In this romanticized imagining of the second World War, vanilla skies are blotted by B-17 Flying Fortress bombers — fast and powerful feats of engineering that took flight during World War II and fueled by individual courage. Set in the European theater, Masters of the Air chronicles a handful of real-life pilots in the U.S. Army Air Force between 1943 until German surrender in May 1945. Due to the large size of the B-17 bombers, a small crew of specialized personnel were required on board to fly them. This plain fact enables Masters of the Air to work almost entirely off a convenient metaphor: War takes everyone doing their parts to survive.
The series lifts a lot of its real-life figures and historical sourcing from a 2007 nonfiction book by historian Donald L. Miller, who chronicled the 100th Bomb Group’s activities; their grisly moniker the “Bloody Hundredth” refers to the huge losses they suffered in a short time. Like the stunning, slow change in atmosphere as the base empties out with deafening silence and sparser extras, Masters of the Air is impressively textured; it’s as if you’re sitting next to a veteran generous enough to tell you their stories and seeing their memories miraculously take shape.
Under the direction of co-creators John Shiban and John Orloff and episode directors Cary Joji Fukunaga, Dee Rees, Tim Van Patten, and Captain Marvel’s Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, Masters of the Air soars as that kind of emotionally driven odyssey with tried-and-true Hollywood mythologizing and fine skillfulness. Nothing about the show and its meditations on warfare are awfully revolutionary, but through execution, it is often revelatory. It’s less Come and See and more Saving Private Ryan, if Spielberg just tilted his camera upward and instructed composer Blake Neely to work off an in-house template of John Williams’ triumphant score.
Of the show’s large ensemble of rowdy men in drool-worthy sheepskin jackets, the most prominent are Maj. Gale Cleven (Austin Butler, the specter of his Elvis Presley still lingering) and Maj. John Egan (Callum Turner), best friends whose reputations precede them wherever they step foot. Whenever Masters of the Air’s momentum falters, which is thankfully few and far between, the show is elevated by the sheer charisma of Butler and Turner. Their chiseled and handsome faces and effortless swagger can stir wistful nostalgia for Hollywood’s Golden Age era stardom, which happens to be a specific aura that works too well with the show’s impeccable period dressings.
“Handsome” is maybe the one true word for Masters of the Air. Its sprawling sets, picturesque photography of warm sunsets and frigid snowfall, a cast of would-be matinee idols, and tasteful grasp of war’s abject ugliness (albeit glossing over who the bombs were falling on) all collectively set a new bar for period dramas in the streaming age. Masters of the Air’s unflinching action is the magnet that draws one’s elbows to their knees. In exchange for undivided attention, audiences are rewarded with breathless showmanship and bombast that just hasn’t been seen in shows like it in some time. It’s bitterly ironic, in fact, that Masters of the Air is an Apple release, which only guarantees a majority of viewers will experience the show on cracked iPhone screens than in an appropriately large format where its maximalist attributes can be truly appreciated.
Anyone fatigued by the turbulence of streamers’ content dump vaporware can be rest assured in Masters of the Air, an old-school, broad-sweeping spectacle of hefty weight and steadfast romanticizing of a bygone war with the least moral ambiguity. While its narrative could benefit from some overall bolt-tightening and reinforcement in its stray romantic subplots (many of them abruptly abandoned), its resplendence lies in its gorgeous endless horizons and the valor of the men who lived and died among them.
War is ugly, genocide is objectionable, and the only right thing ever is to demand ceasefire. But the history books have already been written, printed in ink. If we are to turn to our past for instruction of our future, perhaps we can find the best versions of us high above.
Masters of the Air premieres Jan. 26 on Apple TV+.
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