The miniseries on World War II horrors, which boasts of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks as executive producers, offers a cinematic experience that begs for the grandeur of theatres

By the time I finished the third hour-long episode of Masters of the Air, the new miniseries by Apple TV+ (created by John Shiban and John Orloff), the lingering thought inside my head was, “Why aren’t we seeing this on the large screen?” Here’s a gorgeously mounted, brilliantly performed World War II drama, with Hollywood veterans Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks among the executive producers (their third World War II miniseries after Band of Brothers and Pacific). The cast includes flavours-of-the-season Austin Butler (Elvis, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) and Barry Keoghan (The Banshees of Inisherin, Saltburn), two of the most in-demand young actors on the planet right now.

As Oppenheimer proved not too long ago, sweeping World War II dramas can, in fact, earn a billion dollars at the box office. Why, then, are we being relegated to our laptops and TV screens when we could follow the aerial combat scenes the way God intended, on a large screen with mediocre snacks by our sides? Perhaps my bitterness owes something to the fact that Bollywood just dumped the turkey named Fighter on us a couple of weeks ago, and its underwhelming, borderline-juvenile depiction of fighter pilots has left a bad taste in my mouth.

A Tale of Two Majors

Luckily, Masters of the Air is on the other end of the spectrum, quality-wise: a supremely assured, old-fashioned war epic that never feels rushed and assumes/demands a high degree of attention from viewers. Based on Donald L. Miller’s 2006 book of the same name, this is the true story of the 100th Bomb Group, a Boeing B-17 heavy bomber unit of the US Air Force during World War II. The two de facto leaders of the group were Major Gale “Buck” Cleven (played by Austin Butler) and Major John “Bucky” Egan (played by Callum Turner).

Straight off the bat, Masters of the Air does a fine job of sketching intimate, compare-and-contrast portraits of these two lead characters. It’s very much a fire-and-ice dynamic between these two men with extremely similar nicknames. Butler’s Major Cleven is a solid, reliable, cool-under-pressure soldier with ice in his veins. Whereas Callum Turner’s Major Egan is a bit of a loose cannon, but what he lacks in strategic nous he makes up for in passion and raw energy. The two young actors play off each other with élan, as we discover their divergent leadership styles and how this affects the rest of the 100th.

Masters of the Air does a fine job of sketching intimate, compare-and-contrast portraits of these two lead characters.

One thing I really liked about the screenplay is the attention given to the smallest of characters, especially in terms of their contribution to the war effort. As the voiceover informs us helpfully during the second episode, those up in the air doing the actual fighting were far from the only heroes in sight: “Every man who flew a B-17 thanked God for our ground crews. There was no glory in what they did. No medals were handed out for patching flak holes or rebuilding carburetors. Our crew chiefs were responsible for keeping our planes in the air in any given mission. Which means they were responsible for the lives of dozens of men. Corporal Ken Lemmons was one of our best crew chiefs. He was 19 years old.”

Fukunaga’s Delightful Framing

Cary Joji Fukunaga, the director of acclaimed thriller Sin Nombre (2009) as well as the much-loved first season of True Detective, has directed the first three episodes here. He brings his keen sense of scale and painterly framing to proceedings here. The scene where Barry Keoghan’s Lt. Curtis Biddick indulges a British colleague in a spot of bare-knuckle boxing is a small masterpiece by itself, as is the scene where we are shown the 100th suffering its first casualties in an operation gone wrong.

Fukunaga’s hyper-sincere style, characterized by intense close-ups and morally complex heroes spouting quasi-philosophical lines, is in full flight here, so to speak. And because these are the 1940s, the screenplay has the license to go full ‘King James Bible’ once in a while, like the passage where a chaplain blesses a forthcoming mission with an impromptu prayer to keep the men safe: “Lord guard and guide the men who fly through the great spaces of the sky. Be with them traversing the air in darkening storms or sunshine fair. Thou who dost keep with tender might, the balanced birds in all their flight. Thou of the tempered winds, be near, that having thee they know no fear.”

First-degree Thrills, Visceral Action

Of course, watching a war drama, that too one helmed by Hollywood, in today’s political climate is never a ‘neutral’ event. Conscientious viewers may find the sincerity of the anti-Nazi sentiments spouted here a little cloying, especially given the way Hollywood has closed ranks around Israel recently — there’s every reason to believe that Hollywood is currently engaged in punishing those who have expressed even the mildest of pro-Palestinian statements.

In light of this, I was especially torn about a scene where we see the bombing style of the American soldiers being compared favourably to that of their British colleagues: “The British Royal Air Force and the American Army Air Force had two very different approaches to the bombing campaign against Germany. The Americans pursued daylight precision bombing, an effort to pursue specific military or economic targets. The British, who had been at war with the Nazis for nearly four years, practised nighttime area bombing. It was indiscriminate and deadly. Which was more effective depended upon which uniform you wore.”

Now, this scene is playing out over visuals of a British soldier writing “Return to Hitler” on a missile warhead — tough not to make the leap to images of IDF soldiers writing messages on their missiles here. Americans are moral, British decidedly less that way, is the message. Whether this is intentional or not (and whether the Israel connection is on purpose) is tough to say, but if Masters of the Air suffers it’s only in contexts/moments like this one. In every other aspect, this is a series that ought to be savoured slowly and deliberately. Amidst all its first-degree thrills and the visceral nature of the action, this is a story that rewards close reading and that’s an impressive balance to strike.

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