‘Masters Of The Air’ Review: WWII Mini-Series Captures Insane Danger, But Struggles To Maintain Altitude

In 2001, the TV mini-series was forever altered by HBO’s “Band of Brothers,” a towering achievement in the form and quite simply one of the best WWII films or shows of all time. Based on the book by Stephen E. Ambrose, and created by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, “Band of Brothers” told the story of “Easy” Company from boot camp through the Western Front. It was followed by the nearly-as-good “The Pacific” in 2010, chronicling the battle in the Pacific War, and the difficulties for soldiers after returning home. Fourteen years later, Apple TV+ finally launches the highly anticipated “Masters of the Air,” detailing the saga of the 100th Bomb Group of the war.

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While it’s unfair to compare nearly anything to “Band of Brothers” or even “The Pacific,” it’s almost impossible not to do so here, given the strong sense that this is practically a sequel to those earlier projects. The blunt truth is that it doesn’t come close to operating on the same artistic level. The attention to detail will be enough for some viewers (even with some relatively shoddy aerial CGI), especially those interested in this chapter of history, but “Masters of the Air” makes several mistakes that Playtone (that’s Hanks/Spielberg’s company) avoided in the HBO productions, succumbing to over-written dialogue, cliched characters, and a sense that everything looks too pretty. Some of the performances elevate the production, as does a pair of major talents in directing chairs in the final run of the show, but it’s hard not to call this major series a disappointment.

From the very beginning, “Masters of the Air” captures the insane danger of being in the Air Force in World War II. If the enemy didn’t get you, the fact that you were flying in a barely functional tin can would. There’s a palpable sense that these pilots and passengers who went up in B-17s put their lives in jeopardy as soon as the planes took off. And then add how much the technology we’re used to now wasn’t in play then, and it becomes even more breathtaking that missions were ever successful.

Take the arc of Major Harry Crosby (series MVP Anthony Boyle), who starts as a terrified navigator, puking his way through the unfriendly skies, but becomes one of the more distinguished officers of the unit. The real Crosby flew 32 combat missions and was awarded multiple citations for his bravery. He was part of what would become known as the “Bloody 100th,” which is filled out in early episodes of “Masters of the Air” by a pair of charismatic aviators named Major Gale Cleven (Austin Butler) and Major John Egan (Callum Turner). Butler, Turner, and Boyle are the primary throughline for a 9-episode series that will often leave them for supporting character arcs but always comes back to this trio, even after Egan and Cleven are captured by the enemy and kept prisoner for a large chunk of the narrative.

Of course, these series have always been driven by ensemble, and so other familiar and fresh faces will pop up through “Masters of the Air,” including Barry Keoghan, Ncuti Gatwa, Joanna Kulig, Nate Mann, and a typically excellent Bel Powley. There are dozens of other officers in “Masters of the Air,” but the writers here, led by John Orloff, a writer on “Band of Brothers,” struggle not only to define some of the other players but to really elevate their leads in an interesting way. Butler and Turner aren’t very effective here, often reduced to the kind of dialogue that sounds like what people say when they know they’re in a prestige mini-series. There’s that sense throughout the show that the team—actors, writers, directors, and tech—are making “something important.” It’s in the longing looks over the perfectly-framed horizons or the magic hour cinematography that makes everything feel more clichéd than it did in the HBO productions, thereby making it feel more distant and less emotionally powerful.

After a strong premiere, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, and a pair of episodes helmed by Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, the show really elevates itself with seventh and eighth chapters directed by Dee Rees (“Mudbound”) that focus on the Tuskegee Airmen and then goes even further with a nearly feature-length finale directed by Tim Van Patten, a TV directing legend. Van Patten’s episode is so strong, elevating both the visual beauty of the production and its tactile grit somehow at the same time, that it almost makes the overall series worse by revealing what it should have been all along.

It leads one to wonder if “Masters of the Air” might be more impactful without “Band of Brothers” or “The Pacific” setting such a high standard. For those who never saw those shows, it will probably get the job done. It’s an important chapter in World War II history, and it’s undeniably impressive to look at—the amount of money that Apple spends on productions like this continues to be breathtaking—but this show is a descendant of programs that weren’t just “well-made,” they were revolutionary, feeling like nothing else on TV. You can’t say that about “Masters of the Air,” a show that’s fine, but these war heroes and the TV lineage into which the dramatization of their heroism falls deserve better than “fine.” [C+]

Masters Of The Air” debuts January 26 on Apple TV+.