Band of Brothers, the HBO war miniseries about American paratroopers produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, begins with a sort of narrative hammer to the skull.
“We came from a small, small town,” says a combat veteran immediately off the top of the first episode. “And three fellas in that town that were [deemed unfit for duty] committed suicide, because they couldn’t go.”
Nine years later, their next entry — U.S. Marines-centred The Pacific — only took a few extra seconds to get to a similar point.
“We had no idea that we were the forefront of all this,” a retired Marine says, over images of ships burning in Pearl Harbor and FDR’s “a day that will live in infamy” speech.
“The main thing was to stay alive.”
But Masters of the Air, the producing partners’ third and latest instalment, takes a slightly different route. Rather than launching with footage of soldiers, battles or history, the series starts off with two guys, Buck and Bucky, leaning on their elbows at a bar, riffing over the similarity of their nicknames.
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To be fair, framing Masters of the Air as flippant with its subject matter — a nascent American Air Force struggling through some of the darkest days of the Second World War — would be disingenuous. That opening scene’s purpose is to starkly contrast between a pilots’ experience on the ground with their screaming descents through machine-gun fire in subzero temperatures more than 6,000 metres in the air. A scene showing just that pops up moments later.
Any impartial watcher would say Masters of the Air, which is on Apple TV Plus, treats its source material with respect. Based on the book of the same name by Donald L. Miller, the series is obviously committed to truthfully telling the stories of its fighters, such as 100th Bomb Group members Maj. Gale (Buck) Cleven and Maj. John (Bucky) Egan — played here by Austin Butler and Callum Turner.
Like the book, the show pairs personal stories with the terrifying reality of air combat never seen before or since. The technology for full-scale bomber warfare did not exist prior to the Second World War. By its end, Miller writes,it “was already being rendered obsolete by jet engine aircraft, rocket-powered missiles, and atomic bombs.”
As theorists and commanders forced a basically brand-new armed force into existence, its airmen were ground down by that experiment. Early on, two-thirds of them would die or be captured, as many as 80 per cent of their planes could be lost in a single battle and, at one point, 99 per cent of pilots ditching at sea were lost, according to Miller.
Apple TV’s Masters of the Air grounds itself there, in pitch-perfect fodder for an anthology series that has, so far, flawlessly carved out a storytelling niche in one of the most jam-packed genres. But Masters of the Air doesn’t continue the trend.
It’s more than understandable why the series, filmed now nearly a century after its subject took place, no longer includes first-hand testimony, as its predecessors did. But without them, Masters of the Air takes a complete tonal shift.
Where Band of Brothers‘ commentary and The Pacific‘s tactical maps and mission outlines bookending its episodes helped tack on a certain sense of solemnity and awe, Masters of the Air has given over completely to just another story using its historical context for entertainment.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but it is a significant downgrade — and especially disappointing if your standards were set by the last two miniseries.
Watching Band of Brothers’s Easy Company slowly build a fighting force and get it to Europe, then see it picked apart as real members recollect what it was like felt almost like service journalism. It was an eye-opening peek into history you could play in a history class. Masters of the Air’s less-than-impressive story — for the most part made up of disjointed anecdotes from the book, patched together without a unifying theme — feels like something you’d watch while making dinner.
It’s all the more a shame for the fact there is a compelling story to be told. Committed but overzealous commanders were arguably forced by circumstance to sacrifice airmen in order to prove an Air Force could — and must — be used to win the war. There was also the refusal of those planners to accept the necessity of fighter planes alongside heavy bombers, and the threat of the Army Air Forces being absorbed and dispersed if their untested techniques didn’t show results.
Some of that is scattered throughout Masters of the Air, but without the clear focus of the other series. Instead, Butler’s Cleven delivers wooden lines, while still holding on to the accent that seemingly seeped into his pores from 2022’s Elvis. Meanwhile, he bounces between impressive, but same-y sky battles and the real-life accounts of hands melted to guns — and a husky named Meatball kidnapped from Iceland.
It’s faithfully told, but feels more like shallow characters on a narrative rail, more guiding us on a clip-show of archival footage than building to a central message. Part of that is due to the performances, which are nothing to write home about — aside from perhaps miniseries mainstay Anthony Boyle (Manhunt, The Plot Against America, Patrick Melrose) as Lt. Harry Crosby.
Part of it also is the writing. Where Band of Brothers gave us the morally duplicitous Capt. Sobel, and The Pacific the casually terrifying Cpl. Shelton, seemingly every character in Masters of the Air‘s initial episodes is a one-dimensional delivery system for simple, unchallenged acts of heroism.
And part of it is a decidedly America-centric viewpoint of the war, with opposing servicemen — and the bombed civilians and non-combatants caught more in the crossfire of indiscriminate bombing campaigns than nearly any other military operation — about as invisible as they are in many Western-made war movies. Even the internal conflict felt by airmen commanded to drop thousands of bombs over populated cities, which Miller painstakingly documented, is, if anything, an afterthought here.
But even with all that, Masters of the Air doesn’t fall below much, or even most, entertainment built around the Second World War. It seems like it was made for history buffs of the era — the kind of thing that those with a shelf crammed with books about the era, a travel history guided by memorials to it and a deep affinity for Oppenheimer should probably love.
Masters of the Air has all the ingredients of success — still, there’s something dead behind the eyes. If you don’t expect much, there’s not much to complain about. But it’s not what it could have been.