‘Masters of the Air’: 3rd Time’s a Charm for WWII Air Drama

‘Masters of the Air’: 3rd Time’s a Charm for WWII Air Drama February 3, 2024

WWII airmen stand in front of a B-17 bomber plane.
Image: Edward Ashley, Matt Gavan, Callum Turner and Anthony Boyle/PHOTO: AppleTV+

I have no complaints about Apple TV+’s Masters of the Air, the follow-up to executive producers Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg’s previous WWII dramas, HBO’s Band of Brothers and The Pacific.

Really, none.

It’s not as powerful a sweep of a story as in the previous two miniseries, but then, it’s a choppier story by nature.

So, let me say up front, provided you can withstand some gruesome air-combat action, this one gets a hearty recommend from me — and that includes a special thumbs-up for Catholics.

But first …

What Is Masters of the Air About?

Here’s how AppleTV+ describes the show, created by John Shiban (The X-Files, Ozark) and John Orloff (Band of Brothers):

Based on Donald L. Miller’s book of the same name, and scripted by John Orloff, “Masters of the Air” follows the men of the 100th Bomb Group (the “Bloody Hundredth”) as they conduct perilous bombing raids over Nazi Germany and grapple with the frigid conditions, lack of oxygen and sheer terror of combat conducted at 25,000 feet in the air.

Portraying the psychological and emotional price paid by these young men as they helped destroy the horror of Hitler’s Third Reich, is at the heart of “Masters of the Air.” Some were shot down and captured; some were wounded or killed. And some were lucky enough to make it home. Regardless of individual fate, a toll was exacted on them all.

Sadly, there are very few veterans of that era left alive, but the Military Times spoke to one in 2019. Then 97, World War II B-17 “Flying Fortress” bomber pilot John “Lucky” Luckadoo, a pilot and co-pilot with the 100th, told the site:

When we were preparing to go overseas our commanding officer called us together and said, “Look at the man on either side of you. Only one of you will be coming back. You’re all going to be killed and you might as well accept it.”

That was the mindset that we were supposed to take into combat. That our chances of coming back were so minimal that we should accept our fate and just do the best that we could, for as long as we could.

Facing your mortality to that degree is a very sobering and maturing experience. It was so horrific that just one mission could turn our hair white. The sheer terror that we confronted was so devastating that it left a mark on us for life.

Who’s Who in Masters of the Air?

Now, this isn’t the U.S. Air Force we’re talking about, nor the Navy pilots featured in Tom Cruise’s two Top Gun movies.

The actual U.S.A.F. wasn’t created until 1947, and the Masters pilots launch from land, not carriers, so this is the Army Air Force.

There isn’t a sole leading man in Masters of the Air, but there are three main characters: Austin Butler (Elvis) as Major Gale “Buck” Cleven; Callum Turner (Emma., The Boys in the Boat) as Major John “Bucky” Egan, and Anthony Boyle as Lt. Harry Crosby (who also functions as narrator).

BTW, it’s a sad commentary on young American actors that only one of this trio of Yanks is played by an American. That’s Californian Butler, while Turner is British, and Boyle is Irish. The rest of the large cast is also mostly British and Irish. This may be a function of shooting in the U.K., but American actors, up your game.

Isabel May of the Yellowstone prequel 1883 is there briefly. Others in the very large cast include Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk, The Banshees of Inisherin, Saltburn), Bel Powley (A Small Light), Sawyer Spielberg (son of Steven) and Raff Law (son of Jude).

Where Are the Tuskegee Airmen?

The opening credits of Masters of the Air show members of the Tuskegee Airmen, and with three episodes having aired, one might wonder where they are.

Fear not, the famed Black pilots pop up in episode 8, leading up to the point where their story intersects with that of the main characters.

As I said above, this is a choppy tale, and pulling all the elements together isn’t as clear-cut as in Band of Brothers or The Pacific.

Bluntly put, with the high casualties among the B-17 pilots, even finding characters that could be followed from beginning to end was a challenge. And … don’t even assume that everyone you get to know makes it through.

Steel Yourself for Some Rough Patches

A lot of CGI was necessary to bring to life the bomber flights over Europe — and it’s glorious.

But these aren’t the sleek jets of modern air warfare. These are buckets of bolts, offering little protection for the pilots and crews aside from the guns that bristled from multiple points on the “Flying Fortresses” — or “Forts,” for short.

You will learn the real meaning of the phrase, “You know you’re over the target when you’re taking flak.”

And the air battles, when they happen, are ferocious, jaw-clenchingly tense and very bloody. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

But, you will also be amazed at the skill of these pilots, without any advanced electronics or computer whizbang. That includes the navigators, who calculated routes by hand, while being shot at (and frequently vomiting from air sickness).

Learning the Real Meaning of Tough

These guys aren’t called the Greatest Generation for nothing.

All generations have their challenges, but what these young people faced, and how they came back (if they came back) to often build productive, successful lives and families, is nothing short of amazing.

They didn’t talk much about what happened, but anyone watching Hanks and Spielberg’s trio of WWII dramas should realize that if we stand tall today, it’s because we stand on the shoulders of giants.

Oh, and the Faith Stuff

I’d have to go back and rewatch the first two miniseries to see if this is an ongoing theme, but faith is very present in Masters of the Air — especially Catholicism.

A Catholic chaplain shows up, and he’s seen, in a beautiful chasuble, praying with crews before a mission. You can spot a Rosary, and witness men praying and crossing themselves.

Also, there’s a strong nod to the Holocaust, when a Jewish pilot visits a now-deserted concentration camp.

Watching for the “Woke”

I’m very conscious these days of how some writers and producers sneak current attitudes and political commentary into historical scripts, even if they have to be shoehorned in.

That kind of thing never really works. I’m of the opinion that stories should be told from their own perspectives, rather than bending and twisting them to fit the present.

There’s not a whiff of that in Masters of the Air, other than making an effort to get women into a story where they really didn’t figure much in reality. But, it’s not intrusive, and it makes sense where it’s done.

Kudos to all involved. It’s very rare that anything I see these days doesn’t rankle me somehow, but Masters of the Air was clear skies all the way.

But Wait, Why Isn’t Masters of the Air on HBO?

A lot has changed since The Pacific in 2001, but I’ll let one of the filmmakers explain it.

Says Hanks’ producing partner Gary Goetzman, to IGN.com:

But fans of Band of Brothers and The Pacific will note that unlike those series and Playtone’s From the Earth to the Moon, Masters of the Air is not an HBO project but rather Apple TV+. According to Goetzman, it wasn’t for lack of interest on HBO’s part.

“They insisted on us developing it. We had never made any television for anyone other than HBO. Regimes change, budgets get different, attitudes towards what these networks want to do or not do change. But they’re all very friendly. They were pushing us to develop this,” Goetzman recalled during a recent interview with IGN.

“When we finally came around to it and newer people were there and we started talking about budget, it was obvious they couldn’t handle it, at least at that point in time. And [fellow executive producer] Steven Spielberg said, ‘Let’s go to Apple TV+.’ And so we did and met with their two head guys there. And they said, ‘Hey, just don’t go over this number and we’re with you. We’ll do it.’ And they did, and they’ve been great.”

The TV times, they are a’changin’.

Image: Edward Ashley, Matt Gavan, Callum Turner and Anthony Boyle/PHOTO: AppleTV+

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About Kate O'Hare
Based in Los Angeles, Kate O'Hare is a veteran entertainment journalist, Social Media Content Manager for Family Theater Productions and a rookie screenwriter. You can read more about the author here.
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