Masters of the Air

Masters of the Air
Masters of the Air
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Masters of the Air is a moving and deeply emotional account of the true story of the heroic pilots of the 100th Bomb Group over Europe’s bloody skies during World War II. These were the young American men who flew the B-17 Flying Fortress, taking the war directly to Hitler’s doorstep. They sustained catastrophic losses in near-suicidal missions but developed an unbreakable camaraderie that held them together through hard-fought victories and savage defeats alike. The series, based on historian Donald L. Miller’s critically acclaimed book, serves as an aerial counterpart to Tom Hanks’ and Steven Spielberg’s Band of Brothers and The Pacific.

The two-part premiere introduces dozens of heroes at once, but mostly focuses on the swashbuckling commanders who arrive in May 1943 fresh from training schools around America. Major John “Bucky” Egan (Callum Turner) is an executive expected to lead from a desk on the ground; his charisma, alcoholism and charm are matched only by his best friend and opposite number: Major Gale Cleven (Austin Butler), whom everyone calls Buck because it amuses Egan to confuse people with their similar names. Cleven has never had a nickname before and doesn’t really like this one; he also doesn’t drink or dance or smoke or do anything fun, really — which makes him no less ready than Egan for some real action after hundreds of hours spent training.

Egan leaves for England weeks ahead of Cleven and the rest of their men, cajoling superiors into letting him take part in a bombing run whose scale — even though it takes place under controlled conditions — shatters any fantasized notions about how these things work. Instead, B-17s are subjected to withering anti-aircraft fire from Nazis known as flak, exploding artillery shells that send clouds of jagged metal through planes like buckshot; then they face swooping fighter attacks meant to pick off bombers and disrupt their formations. B-17s had up to 13 high-caliber machine guns, including ball turrets that could shoot in every direction, but hitting ground targets required dropping bombs directly overhead — no easy task.

Cleven learns this same lesson the hard way after he arrives, though nothing can really prepare a man for what combat is actually like. It’s something you have to see for yourself before it makes any sense; you have to go through hell in order to appreciate how high the stakes are. The two men reconnect as their missions grow more desperate: German U-Boats are sinking Allied merchant ships faster than they can be built or replaced, and without supplies the war will be lost.

Narrated by Lt. Harry Crosby (Anthony Boyle), a navigator who suffers from air sickness, Crosby speaks in voiceover as he tells the story of his fellow flyers and wrestles with his own crippling weakness — which highlights each pilot’s job along with those of radiomen, ground crew, secretaries and even mess-hall cooks who made every mission possible. Poor navigation at best brought death at worst court-martial; there was no room for error or infirmity on these planes. Some days Crosby could barely keep his breakfast down let alone plot their course over enemy territory.

Masters of the Air spends just as much time on the ground as above it: We see members of the 100th blowing off steam in bars and dance halls and bedrooms; we watch them fall in love with women they’ll never forget and might not ever see again; we hear them sing songs that would become hits back home but were written overseas by boys who knew they might not make it through another week alive. Missions had to be flown regardless of manpower or mental exhaustion — no one was quitting until Hitler was dead or surrendering until he’d been beaten into submission, whichever came first.

Masters of the Air is a highly detailed and historically accurate show. John Orloff, a writer and producer for film and television (including Band of Brothers), explores themes of personal responsibility in this brilliant script. Each B-17 had ten crew members who worked together as one unit to accomplish such complex objectives. Any failure in cooperation could be fatal. Crosby must plot their position while the pilots dodge incoming assault, gunners retaliate, bombardiers unleash the payload, arm the bombs himself under extreme duress and identify the target.

But it’s all just noise unless they stay in the air. Harrowing scenes of engine failure or other mechanical issues can quickly complicate matters. There’s no guarantee they’ll make it to where they need to be. Some never even come close; paying the ultimate price for seemingly nothing.

There’s a lot happening here, and getting past the “Bucky”/“Buck” confusion is only step one. It honestly took me a couple minutes to figure out who was telling this story — at first I thought Turner was narrating again but then realized he’s too much in-character later on — before settling on Butler because his deep voice sounds more like an aged flier than Turner’s does… But anyway! Once we’re locked into that — and yes, Orloff does follow a relatively linear progression of battles on a timeline with character exposition taking up space between them which allows for large ensembles to interact/build their place within narrative but makes it hard when everybody wears oxygen masks once planes reach certain elevations so you have to pay attention/not get confused by voices — we spend most time with Keoghan’s tough yankee Lt Curtis Biddick who seems distinct from Turner or Butler or…

Masters of the Air opens with patriotic fervor but gets almost too handsome with its casting; it looks like Turner & Butler stepped off catwalks onto B-17 bombers what with their movie-star good looks that harken back to classic war film heartthrobs — I mean, Butler’s got a pompadour here that’d make his Elvis character jealous so maybe it’s all too attractive & polished?

Masters of the Air is a Playtone/Amblin Television/Apple Studios production. The series premieres exclusively on Apple TV+ with two episodes on Friday, January 26th, followed by one new episode every Friday through March 15th.

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