Masters of the Air – Miniseries


Masters of the Air is the third wartime drama in the Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks helmed universe Band of Brothers and The Pacific, switching focus to aerial combat during World War Two for a nine episode, big budget spectacular starring A-List actors with the likes of Barry Keoghan, Austin Butler and Ncuti Gatwa. It’s certainly big, bold, lavish and very ambitious – but does it stick the landing? It certainly does – because although the messiness of the war is somewhat reflected in the script’s narrative – especially given the circumstances of following a group of bomber pilots on their various missions which literally ends more towards repetition in the narrative than not – you see them prepping for their mission, they go up, they fight, some die, they go back home again – but once the show opens up a bit in its third act you see what Masters of the Air should’ve been all along, a towering prison escape drama; justice for the Tuskegee Airman, and one of the most frantic portrayals of the entire war in nine episodes.

The sheer amount of detail leaves history nerds right at home: arriving quieter and more without fuss than a sequel to Band of Brothers ever could on linear television or even the HBO of old, but there is no HBO of old – AppleTV+ is the new HBO, and few other networks would be able to afford the lofty price put into making Masters of the Air. The American men of the 100th bomb group are our focus – with an incredible cast list of central characters. Butler and Callum Turner play the series’ beating heart, Maj. Gale “Buck” Cleven and John “Bucky” Egan, but with over 300 speaking roles Masters of the Air is so stuffed with its cast that the Tuskegee Airmen don’t even make it until the backend of the series; leaving you wondering why Gatwa was a big part of the marketing push.

But his role is – like everybody else’s in Masters of the Air, a vital one – the camadire between Buck and Bucky is full of chaotic energy and life; and Butler’s performance in Masters of the Air, especially when he disappears off screen only to wind up a captive POV in the same camp that played host to *that* Great Escape; is a movie-star reveal better than anything, that smile – “John Egan, your two o’clock,” is one of the most satisfying moments of the year – this year’s “one way out” – and succeeds in bringing closer to an abrupt off-screen death, which in any other show I wouldn’t have believed even for a second, but to its credit, Masters of the Air succeeds in the fakeouts due to the high casualty of war: anyone can die, and that can mean it can get hard to attached to the characters, and maybe an episode in basic training could’ve been used for us to get to know them a bit better, but then, that’s the point – the ones that die, including Barry Keoghan’s Lt. Curtis Biddick, early on and ruthlessly, are victims of a cruel war with no innocents. It’s a credit to Masters of the Air that it does make us care about Buck and Bucky so much and so instantly; two characters in a large cast perhaps – but the dynamic is there, and most shows that run for longer struggle to capture the chemistry of Butler and Turner.

AppleTV+ are the kings of prestige dad television, as a recent article in GQ pointed out, and with that comes an air of expectation to Masters of the Air. The brilliant cinematic opening credits pull you right in, unskippable and rewarding, and they give you a clue from the off, like all tv credits should – of what you’re getting into. It can lead to something of an abrupt mission objective in parts, with the much-promised D-Day for example, barely featured – but then that is the point of Masters of the Air, we’re not involved in the on ground battles. Those who aren’t aware of the history of World War Two will may struggle to wonder the significance of key events – but for those clued up on the very basic stories; it’s a marvel – resisting the need to be flashy and “prestige” in the same way most shows would’ve. It’s old school, pre-streaming almost – a rare antiquity that has something to say. One thing that elevates the show is its massive list of directors – Cary Joji Fukunaga, No Time to Die director, is followed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck; masters of the indie drama Mississippi Grind and Sugar; before helming Captain Marvel. Dee Rees, director of Mudbound, helms an episode. That’s a healthy list of talent that really knows how to make this show look good. And look good it does – Masters of the Air is an early year triumph in the best way possible.

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