‘Masters of the Air’ series review: Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks’ WWII epic is a long-format masterpiece

It’s long, sobering, brutal and unrestrained; Apple TV+’s 9-episode World War II saga, ‘Masters of the Air,’ is a visual spectacle unlike anything put to screen before

February 02, 2024 05:09 pm | Updated 05:30 pm IST

Callum Turner and Austin Butler in a still from ‘Masters of the Air’

Callum Turner and Austin Butler in a still from ‘Masters of the Air’ | Photo Credit: Apple TV+

Pause halfway into Masters of the Air, Apple TV+’s gargantuan 9-episode epic, and the word you might be hunting for is tenacity, a quality so impressive and hence so rare to find these days. A World War II saga about airmen putting their resilient best in the face of war and death should naturally tell you all about grit, bravado, the human spirit, and the despicability of war, but what also doesn’t miss to amaze you is the sheer filmmaking mastery at display behind all that.

Certainly inching towards becoming a modern-day masterpiece, Masters of the Air is classic television storytelling with pristine visual effects — thanks to its mammoth production value — and a star cast who give their all and beyond. It follows the story of the 100th Bomb Group of the United States Eighth Air Force in 1943, as they take on the unthinkable job of bombing targets in Nazi Germany, all the while taking on the tyranny of anti-aircraft bombs (called flaks) and Nazi fighters on Messerschmitt Bf 109s.

Throughout the series, there’s a sense of dread as every second conceals the possibility of a horrifying fate for these soldiers. Watching your screen fill with bloodied bodies and hundreds of these B17 bombers (they call them ‘forts’), some blown to pieces, is bound to fill you with crippling anxiety. If that feeling draws you to hesitatingly remember the anxiety of the Omaha Beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks would take that in great stride. Unlike anything put to screen before, this long, intense, and brutal series is Spielberg, Hanks, and Gary Goetzman’s follow-up to their Band of Brothers and The Pacific.

Masters of the Air (English)
Creators: John Shiban and John Orloff
Executive producers: Steven Spielberg, Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks
Cast: Austin Butler, Callum Turner, Anthony Boyle, Barry Keoghan, Ncuti Gatwa and more
Episodes: 9
Runtime: 50-77 minutes
Storyline: Members of the 100th Bomb Group of the United States Eighth Air Force risk imminent death as they take on the gargantuan task of bombing targets in Nazi Germany in 1943

What fascinates one the most is how you find characters, played by A-listers, enter, exit and re-enter based on where their fate takes them, making the whole affair more about the collective group (dubbed as The Bloody Hundredth) than individuals. In fact, for the most part, when the story solely follows these air missions, we hardly see the enemy, only their forts passing by, making it more about what the squadron goes through. This of course doesn’t mean there isn’t space to get emotionally invested in these characters. Leading from the centre are Gale ‘Buck’ Cleven (a subdued Austin Butler) and John ‘Bucky’ Egan (a delightful Callum Turner), best friends and spirited pilots.

Initially faced with the reality of the bloody warfare above clouds, Bucky grapples with having to go back out there mission after mission. Even Buck, the stone-faced antidote to Bucky’s eccentric bad boy, struggles to hide his fears and march on. You also begin to deeply care about Lt. Harry Crosby (Anthony Boyle), the narrator of the series, who initially sticks out like a sore thumb as an air-sick navigator adding to all the anxiety. Crosby’s arc takes both subdued and dramatic turns as the psychological effects of war take a toll on him.

And all of the series plays like an unsettling symphony that speaks about the pointlessness of everything you are made witness to from such close quarters. You alternate between these deadly missions and moments of merry that the ones who make it alive need to momentarily escape their reality; it’s something to see how these men have to move on and be mentally fit for the next mission, no matter who they just lost, even when they fully understand that this is how the world would brush them off as well if things go south. Putting us in the shoes of those who landed on enemy territory — through characters like Sgt. William Quinn (Kai Alexander) and Lt. Ron Bailey (Ian Dunnett Jr) — further amps up the tension.

Now, things get a little murky when the narrative that has strived not to glorify war takes focus away from how all of this was a double-edged sword wielded by a sadist called Hitler, horrifyingly leading to the deaths of millions. And though the series shows how the barbarity of their actions rests heavily on the consciousness of these soldiers as well, it’s baffling how, in the guise of showing the horrors of the Holocaust, the writing leans towards making it all about American pride and why they had to do what they did — a declaration nobody asked of it and a justification of the 1940s that 2024 doesn’t bother itself with. Linking this sentiment with a fascinating character like Major Robert ‘Rosie’ Rosenthal (Nate Mann) also plays spoilsport to his arc.

While it thankfully acknowledges the discriminatory military segregation faced by African American fliers (called The Tuskegee Airmen group, who drive the smaller P-51 aircraft), it would have helped the show had 2nd Lt. Alexander Jefferson (Branden Cook), 2nd Lt. Richard D. Macon (Josiah Cross) and 2nd Lt. Robert H. Daniels (Ncuti Gatwa) had more dialogue on the racism that Black soldiers like themselves were subject to.

All that said, what stuns you for longer than any missteps are the unrestrained storytelling and the technical prowess the series gladly boasts. With a reported figure of $250 million, this visual spectacle is one of the most prestigious undertakings for a television series, and it is without a doubt one of the most admirable American shows of the year already.

The first three episodes of Masters of the Air are currently streaming on Apple TV+, with new episodes releasing every Friday

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