This is not your standard review. It focuses on a type of action that Hollywood gets wrong far more than it gets right — aviation sequences, and especially those having to do with air combat.
After two episodes of Masters Of The Air, which follows the 100th Bomb Group during World War II and is based on a book by the same name, I walked away stunned at how well it portrayed flight sequences. In fact, I can confidently proclaim that this show should be what Hollywood looks to as the gold standard for aviation action. This is especially true as it pertains to air combat and the visual effects that can ruin a show or make it truly visceral and immersive.
A lot of care was put into balancing accurate portrayal of technical details and making the viewer feel like they are flying along with the bomber crews. The scenes where the B-17s fly into flak or are attacked by Luftwaffe fighters are absolutely terrifying. The only way I can put it is they feel 'kinetic,' like the concussive blasts, shrapnel, and machine gun rounds can actually fly out of the screen and hurt you. This remarkable feat is achieved, at least in part, through incredible sound editing, extremely high-quality visual effects, meticulous planning, as well as some great acting by the cast. The fact that they pulled this off on the small screen is even a bigger triumph.
About those visual effects, they are the best I have ever seen. In fact, it is very hard to know what is real and what isn't, even in scenes on the ground. There really wasn't a single moment that took me out of the drama because something looked way off factually or cartoonish. Once again, I really couldn't tell what was physical and what wasn't at times, but in the air, outside of the planes, it's all rendered, but it sure doesn't feel that way. The effects also look more polished than they did in the trailers.
Now, two episodes is not a lot to go on and I chose to watch it this way, just as the average viewer does. But if the show maintains this level of balanced attention to technical detail and visual quality, it will truly achieve something unique in the industry. And yes, a historian of the period will be able to point out details that may not fit perfectly with reality, and some of the mechanical aspects depicted may be abbreviated, but the fact that they include them at all with this level of detail is very welcome.
One major challenge a show about bombing operations during World War II was bound to have, no matter what, was making it easy for the viewer to follow what aircraft and crew is being shown at any given time during flight sequences. They all operate the same planes, wear the same uniforms, and fly in formation. When the action takes them above 10,000 feet, they are wearing oxygen masks on top of it, making it even more of a challenge. But once again, this show did not back away from realism when others would, they wear the masks and do not feature silly changes to their uniforms to make each character stand out. This is telling. The creative team clearly put realism above 'dumbing it down' for easily accessible storytelling, and we should all applaud that.
As for the rest of the show, I enjoyed it. The cast is largely good, although there is some uneven acting at times, but it's a huge ensemble so that isn't a big surprise. The lead, Austin Butler, is fantastic, but that is no surprise if you saw him in Elvis. They also make a big point to highlight how these guys came from all around the United States, from every background, and that is really shown with some colorful characters that you come to like fast, which surely sets us up for major loss later in the show's run.
Masters Of The Air also takes special care to show and literally tell the viewer how the army of maintainers and specialists that kept the planes flying, the bombs flowing, and the intelligence updated, were all key to the operation and how they fought different but challenging battles of their own. This is greatly appreciated as it is mostly forgotten about in depictions of air combat from Hollywood.
The portrayal of the English countryside of the period is also something of a character of its own. It's very well done and even the unique logistics of the basing arrangements there are mentioned on multiple occasions.
One challenge a show like Masters Of The Air faces will have by default is that it will always be compared to Band Of Brothers, which was a masterpiece that changed an entire genre. Sure that's fair in some respects, especially considering who is behind the creative work of Masters Of The Air (both Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks are executive producers), but it's a different setting and has very different mechanics and obstacles that Band Of Brothers did not have.
So, while general comparisons make some sense, direct comparisons don't. The key sequences are taking place in the confines of cockpits and ball turrets, and much of the character drama is occurring on fixed bases or the town nearby, not across the countryside and in villages of war-torn Europe as seen in Band Of Brothers. That massive scope and diversity of historical backdrops and set pieces is just not available for storytelling in Masters Of The Sky.
The bottom line is that this is an absolute must watch for anyone with an interest in aviation or World War II history, or for those that just appreciate great action sequences, solid drama, and incredible production values. As to whether or not it will truly do justice to the pain and triumphs of American bomber crews during WWII, and especially the "Bloody 100th?"
I am confident it will.
But if it falters in doing so, just the flight sequences alone will be worth the price of admission.
Masters Of The Air is now streaming on Apple TV.
Rogoway's review rating:
8 out of 9 Gs
Masters Of The Air is now streaming on Apple TV.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com