MASTERS OF THE AIR Review: War and Glory, Same Old Story

Austin Butler, Callum Turner and Anthony Boyle star in the respectful World War II military spectacle, debuting on Apple TV+.

Managing Editor; Dallas, Texas, US (@peteramartin)
MASTERS OF THE AIR Review: War and Glory, Same Old Story

Fresh young actors and great production design adorn a familiar story of blood and guts.

Masters of the Air
The first two episodes premiere globally Friday, January 26, on Apple TV+. Thereafter, one new episode will debut every Friday, with the finale airing March 15. I've seen all nine episodes.

All due respect to the brave men who gave their lives to fight valiantly against the Nazi peril in World War II. Nearly 15 million military personnel and more than 38 million civilians died during the war, according to one source, which is too large a number to fully comprehend.

Masters of the Air, based on Donald L. Miller's book, focuses on the 100th Bomb Group, part of the U.S. Army Air Force, a B-17 "Flying Fortress" unit, which flew out of England and suffered heavy losses during its combat missions over Europe. As it happens, my late father was a mechanic on a B-17 "Flying Fortress" unit -- though I don't know if it was the 100th Bomb Group -- so I often heard about the "Flying Fortress," an heavily-armored, long range aircraft that was built to drop bombs on enemy territory.

Developed by John Orloff, who wrote the first two episodes, which were directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (True Detective Season 1; No Time to Die, 2021), the initial episodes set up the leading characters, Gale Cleven and John Egan, played by Austin Butler and Callum Turner. They are natural leaders who eagerly step up to their leadership roles, each a Major, each a pilot, each gallant and courageous, each more than ready to fly their planes on whatever mission is assigned, ready to give their lives. Harry Crosby (Anthony Boyle) is a little bit different; he's a navigator who is a very good navigator, but he has a weak stomach and is given to vomiting on every flight.

The many other crew members are young and brave, too, but as the series progresses, it becomes difficult to distinguish one from another, because in flight their faces are usually covered up with oxygen masks and they are either yelling or firing machine guns at enemy aircraft or suffering grievous, bloody wounds.

Since all nine episodes were made available in advance for review purposes, I binged them over the weekend, which tends to minimize the tragic consequences; there's so much death and destruction that it's difficult not to become somewhat numb, waiting for the next brave soldier to be shot out of the sky or to start gushing blood.

Over the nine episodes, the various writers and directors -- Fukunaga helmed the first four episodes, the others were directed by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, Dee Rees, and Tim Van Patten -- give the series a degree of variety. We see the men horsing around on base, dancing with different women, sleeping with some of them, and drinking every manner of adult beverage, yet their carousing takes on a different, increasingly desperate tone as the war progresses from 1943 to 1944 and then to early 1945.

The men are dealing with trauma that no one is prepared for and no one knows how to handle; there are some gestures to rest and recuperation, but precious little. Some of the men are shot of the sky and survive, only to captured by the Germans and housed at prison camps where they plot escape, but it's nothing like The Great Escape (1963), though there are references to those events; it's far more bleak, far more muddier, and far more murderous.

The series began development at HBO in 2013, intended as a complement to Band of Brothers (2001) and The Pacific (2010), both produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg after their work together on Saving Private Ryan (1998). HBO passed on the series in 2010 and Apple TV+ picked it up. Filming on the show began in 2021, so before Austin Butler starred in Elvis (2022). Some of the faces that pop up briefly throughout the series are more familiar now (Barry Keoghan, Bel Powley, Isabel May).

The series as a whole is impressive for its production design, costuming and visual effects. The 100th Bomb Group suffered incredibly heavy casualties. Thus, it doesn't feel like a celebration when the war in Europe ends; it's more like a relief that it's finally over, and the survivors count their blessings that they're still alive.

Watching the series is a sobering reminder that many, many people died horrible deaths during World War II. I'm not sure we needed another mini-series to remind us of that, but maybe we do.

Masters of the Air

  • John Orloff
  • Austin Butler
  • Callum Turner
  • Anthony Boyle
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Anthony BoyleApple TV+Austin ButlerCallum TurnerJohn OrloffActionDramaThriller

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