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Masters of the Air, Apple TV+ review: mind-blowing battles

The cast might be unwieldy, but this WWII drama series from Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks really soars when it hits the skies.

Stare in despair at the horror unfolding on the news every night, and it makes a mockery of the well-worn-out phrase ‘Lest we forget’.

The ‘Great’ War was supposed to end them all. It did not.

Children born in the embers of that monstrous conflagration – which claimed some 20 million civilian and military lives – were but 21 when Hitler invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939. Many of them would die in the catastrophe that followed.

Some men thought they could conduct warfare at a steely distance, rather than mired in the muddy trenches. As detailed in Donald L. Miller’s brick-like book Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany, Billy Mitchell, dubbed the ‘father’ of the US Air Force, was one such fantasist. He insisted precision bombing was the way to quickly end the nightmare after America reluctantly entered the battlefield after Pearl Harbor.

Mitchell was wrong, too. German U-boat bases and other prime targets were heavily defended by anti-aircraft artillery and the ferocious Luftwaffe, with America’s preference for daytime assaults only exacerbating the incalculable losses as B-17s were blown from the skies, incinerating countless men. Arguably, there’s was a better fate than many who ejected and were captured.

Twice the Buck

This tragedy of commanders’ hubris and the haunting price paid by those carrying out their orders is the sterling stuff many a war movie is made of. It was only a matter of time until Miller’s story-driven testimony was snapped up for adaptation, as Band of Brothers and The Pacific producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks have done with gung-ho Apple TV+ show Masters of the Air.

Read: Masters of the Air: need to know

Focusing on the legendary (but not entirely successful) 100th Bomb Group, AKA the Bloody Hundredth, this gargantuan budget show is stewarded by Band of Brothers co-writer John Orloff, who pens all nine episodes. Controversial No Time to Die director Cary Joji Fukunaga helms the first four chapters, with Mudbound’s Dee Rees, Boardwalk Empire’s Timothy Van Patten, plus Captain Marvel co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck delivering the rest.  

With an expansive cast and the staggering sweep of agonising history bearing down on it, Masters of the Air can feel almost too big in scope. Leeping track of who’s who isn’t helped by the overly confusing and not nearly half as cute as they think gimmick of having its two leads – Elvis actor Austin Butler and Green Room’s Callum Turner – share the name of Captain America’s sidekick.

The perma-toothpick-twirling Butler, all swaggering-smoulder, is Major Gale ‘Buck’ Cleven to rising British star Turner’s Major John ‘Bucky’ Egan, who gives as good as he gets. Watching them fall from bar-hopping bravado to a gaunt-faced pallor is tough, when the reality of their inherently dangerous training in the English midlands gives way to the staccato rat-a-tat-tat of heart-stopping dogfights over Europe.

Barry Keoghan, affecting a New Yoik drawl as the boozy, street-fighting Lieutenant Curtis Biddick, is another standout. In one of the show’s inter-death dealing moments of levity, he gets to slip into his natural Irish accent, nodding to his character’s heritage, after a crash-landing in rural Scotland. This naturally leads to a piss up with the locals and a joke about how the Celts are much preferable to the English, who are primarily depicted as supercilious snobs here.

When Biddick later knocks one of the southerners out during a spot of biffo outside a pub, he quips of the Brit’s preferred after-dark bombing runs, ‘Seeing as you like to do your fighting at night’.

Nepo babies Raff (son of Jude) Law and Spielberg’s own ginger ‘tache-rocking son Sawyer are also in the mix, but after a handful of blindingly white opening eps, there’s no sign yet of Doctor Who star and Barbie support Ken Ncuti Gatwa. I’m eagerly awaiting how the show explores the stories of some 1.2 million African American pilots forced to train in segregated bases and facing heinous discrimination despite their valiant service.

Epic aerial battles

Masters of the Air delivers its best stuff up above, even if the uninitiated have to swallow a lot of stodgy tactical chat about plans, planes and formations that war wonks will chew up before we get there. If it’s a little disappointing that the aircraft are rendered with CGI when grounded, then there’s no faulting the epic aerial battle sequences, seamlessly stitching bone-shudderingly visceral cockpit shots with mind-blowing battles amidst thick nimbus alight with hellfire.

Masters of the Air. Image: Apple TV+.

There are catch-your-breath moments aplenty, from wheel malfunction-induced crash landings to the shadow of enemy fight planes appearing from nowhere, plsu faces torn off mid-flight, frostbitten buttocks and heart-wrenching abandonments. But there’s also Blake Neely’s stirring score, serving the requisite stiff upper lip, and very good boy Meatball the dog.

To the credit of Orloff, we’re brought crashing back to earth every time you get swept up in the (literally) high drama. The Bucks know the buck stops with them, with Butler and Turner’s faces betraying how keenly they feel every lost soul. War is hell. And it’s a real shame we never learn.

Masters of the Air premieres on Apple TV+ on 26 January.