Masters of the Air

Masters of The Air Review: Flying High

It’s fair to say that World War II films often have a very specific look and feel to them. It’s a unique style that immediately informs audiences that this is likely a story of a group of men fighting in 1940s Europe and that many of them will die. This is the tried-and-true template most war films and television series follow, and Masters of the Air is no different. Though we’re not holding that against it. The formula serves a purpose and has become so synonymous with the genre that it automatically does some of the heavy lifting for the story.

Viewers know going into the series that war is hell, but where John Orloff’s (Band of Brothers) new Apple TV+ offering differs is in its place in the war. There are many stories about the infantry, paratroopers, and fighter pilots, but having the focus on a Bombing group, specifically the infamous “Bloody Hundredth”, is an area less explored. The ensemble nature of the trained crew emphasizes teamwork and the ways each character must overcome their own struggles to put everyone else first. Early in the first episode, a navigator makes a mistake and almost directs his plane into Nazi-occupied France, putting the entire crew in peril. This short action scene is just one of the moments in the premiere to showcase the show’s themes, which will be relentlessly hammered into the audience’s mind by the end of episode nine.

Another scene in Episode 1 sees the group attacked by Nazi fighter planes. The shock and brutality of it is surprising and the visceral fear takes hold quickly as bullets rip through the planes, glass shatters, and engines fail. One, then two of the bomber planes go down. Blood sprays, planes explode, and, even worse, one of the pilots is killed by the barrage. You see first thing the gruesome fate any of these men can face at any second.

From that moment on, every mission becomes more tense, not just because the characters might die at any moment but because of how awful the experience can be. The viewer now knows, along with the fresh out of training members of the 100th, exactly what is in store. When they plan another bombing mission in the second episode, it’s hard to feel anything but trepidation, even as the soldiers chant and jeer in the face of it. There’s something, too, about being in a plane that makes things feels so much more out of control than almost any other situation. With other war movies, the focus is often on infantry, soldiers carrying guns with their boots on the ground. Those soldiers aren’t immune to the randomness of death, but it’s not like seeing an engine randomly fail in Masters of the Air, and realizing that a random system kink might kill them all. It’s the intensity and terror of war, coupled with the fact that their weapons and armour are 25,000 feet in the air that hits home. Not only are they fighting Nazis, but they’re also fighting the elements and physics.

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As part of building tension, the series spends extensive time exploring the mechanics of the planes. Long pre-flight checklists and  meticulous recreations of seemingly-era accurate control boards inform audiences of the passion and care the creators feel for the story they are crafting and for the vehicles at the core of the show. That element is sure to be a treat for any viewers tuning in specifically for the showcase of the magnificent B-17 Flying Fortresses.

One major issue with the production, and its one that plagues most ensemble war films, is how very difficult it is to keep every character straight in one’s head. The period accurate uniforms and military haircuts make the first parts of the series a constant game of who’s who. But luckily with a bit of time, and a growing familiarity with the cast, character names and faces coalesce and it becomes clear who holds what rank and what their role is within the crew. Austin Butler (Elvis, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), in particular, brings a charm and a gravitas to his character, Buck. Not to be confused with Callum Turner’s (Fantastic Beasts trilogy, The Boys in the Boat) character Bucky—though they do share many scenes and purposefully draw attention to their similar nicknames. Busy Irish actor Barry Keoghan is on board too, as Lt. Curtis Biddick. But singling out one actor defeats the purpose of this ensemble cast, as every main and minor character shows off the unique characteristics you will need to identify them from the group, be it Crosby’s air sickness, Buck’s melancholic air, or Bucky’s irreverent attitude. Once you identify a trait within a character, it drives the scenes with them in it, which is the mark of quality character writing.

Masters of the Air appears to be a welcome unique take on the World War II drama series format. For any lover of war dramas, aviation enthusiasts, or even anyone intrigued by good writing (and who isn’t too squeamish), this series is a strong contender for a weekly spot on your watch list.

The first two episodes of Masters of The Air premiere exclusively on Apple TV+ on January 26.

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