The emerging pattern seems to be that every ten years or so, Cuba Gooding Jr. will appear in one unabashedly old fashioned, un-ironic World War II movie. With each appearance, his rank will increase with age, as he is now a major, whereas in Michael Bay's "Pearl Harbor" (2001), he was merely the Navy cook. What this says about the career of Cuba Gooding Jr. or the rising but still fairly rare cinematic depiction of black men in WW2 films, I'll leave for someone else to unpack. What I do know is that "Red Tails" fills some sort of cultural need we seem to have - the need to look back upon this particular point in history in a certain uplifting way. It is the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first all black American fighter plane squadron, and their rise to wartime glory from less than humble beginnings.
Many will know that "Red Tails" is a long brewing passion project of "Star Wars" mastermind George Lucas. And I do mean long brewing - back in the early 90s, (I want to say 1993) I remember reading in the Star Wars fan club magazine how George Lucas would next produce this film "Red Tails", and it would be out the following year. There was a picture of the Tuskegee airmen, which I wasn't sure was a production still or not. Of course the proposed released year, as well as the rest of that decade and the entire next one came and went with still no "Red Tails". Perhaps Lucas was waiting for most of the eventual cast to be born?
What we did get was from Lucasfilm was three Star Wars prequels and a fourth Indiana Jones movie. In doing publicity for those projects, Lucas would inevitably mention "Red Tails", as well as a litany of other personal film projects that he wishes he could make, but for whatever reason, feels he can't. After hearing about this "Red Tails" project again and again for so long, I first of all stopped believing he would ever make the film, and secondly was moved to proclaim, "You're GEORGE LUCAS!! You can make whatever movie you want!! Just write a check!! Sell some action figures, and then write a check!!!"
On a recent appearance on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show", Lucas detailed the realities he was up against. Primarily, it comes down to studio uncertainty in the financial bankability of an all-black wartime period piece with no major stars. Moreover, Lucas was looking to do big-budget justice to the Tuskegee airmen in the form of, as he said, a "corny, patriotic, jingoistic film that is about heroes." Mission accomplished on that front, George! Here we are, in 2012, looking at a dogfight movie that feels like a 1940s military recruitment propaganda piece but looks like a gleaming modern-day marvel in terms of visual effects and action rendering. If that sounds similar to a certain blockbuster space opera, well, consider the source.
Meanwhile, the pantheon of Lucasfilm projects not directed by Lucas himself, but nonetheless rammed forward into existence by the man, is not a pretty bunch. I'm talking about "Radioland Murders", "More American Graffiti", and (do I even need to say it?) "Howard the Duck". Therefore, I went in to "Red Tails" with admittedly low expectations (it's even being released in January - never a good sign!), although very much hoping for the best. Thankfully, "Red Tails" can be filed next to Lucasfilm's "Willow" as a good-but-never-great movie of its type. That type being, corny, patriotic, jingoistic films about wartime underdog heroes - an uber-rare species in this jaded-to-a-fault day and age. Certainly some will be led to condemn "Red Tails" for not being what it isn't. If Lucas' pal Steven Spielberg had filmed the same storyline, it would look and feel very differently. The humanity would be deeper, the racial pains of the time would be more felt, and the whole thing would likely have a searing but humane undercurrent. That would no doubt be a beautiful film. But that is not this movie. True to the spirit of one of the characters in the film who carries a toy Buck Rogers ray gun as a good luck charm, "Red Tails" itself does the same thing. There's a lot of serialized action spirit in this movie, harkening back to the 1930s with "Buck Rogers" and "Flash Gordon". The characters, while not so thin that they disappear, are nonetheless sympathetic types: The hotshot, the unsure squadron leader, the trusty mechanic, the newbie, etc.
The film comes alive with the spectacular dogfighting scenes, which are every bit reminiscent of the spaceship battle scenes in the "Star Wars" series. Of course, Lucas drew visual inspiration for the "Star Wars" dogfights from vintage WW2 film footage, so I suppose the circle is now complete. (In the glassy-eyed character called Pretty Boy - the only German pilot with a face - we even have our German Darth Vader.) In "Red Tails", the characters sit around and watch (and cheer) their own post-battle footage. It is much of the same footage that we just saw only moments before in full color and with a THX approved soundtrack. Here, we are definitively told that this is movie through and through.
If you're looking for a rigid history lesson, forget it. Yes, it does manage to stand up pretty well as a tribute to the true-life men it depicts, but true to the dread of wartime life in spirit, it is not. It never has that goal or ideal. Television director Anthony Hemingway gets the job done of fulfilling Lucas' stewing vision of heroic African Americans blasting Germans from the sky with old-fashioned bravado. The actors fulfill their stock roles in comfortable fashion, giving enough drive and soul to these men so that we do in fact care when one of them is falling out of the sky. This is hardly the last word in historic race relations on screen, but who knows, maybe in ten years, Cuba Gooding Jr. will be playing the Commander-in-chief during the war.
It may not be the WW2 we're told about in history books and by Steven Spielberg, but if a rip roaring throwback to the wartime artifice of yore sounds good to you (and I do believe that, in moderation, there is absolutely a place for this sort of thing in the world of cinema), then catch a ride with the high flying "Red Tails".
- Jim Tudor