“As our crews got younger, our casualties climbed, and the morale on base plummeted.”
In 2001, Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman continued their collaborative efforts after the success of 1998’s Academy Award-winning World War II film, “Saving Private Ryan.” Working with HBO and adapting Stephen E. Ambrose’s 1992 novel, the iconic producers brought the heroic story of Easy Company’s 101st Airborne Division to life via the critically acclaimed miniseries, “Band of Brothers.” The ensemble series starred Damian Lewis, Neal McDonough, Ron Livingston, Scott Grimes, Kirk Acevedo and David Schwimmer, eventually winning the Emmy award for Outstanding Miniseries.
To replicate the success of “Band of Brothers,” the same producing team told the story of three young Marines during the Pacific War in 2010’s “The Pacific.” Also an HBO production, “The Pacific” took home the Emmy yet again for Outstanding Miniseries, solidifying Spielberg and Hanks as storytellers who understand what it takes to detail the experiences of American fighters in the 1940s. They hope to strike gold a third time with the new Apple TV+ series “Masters of the Air,” which focuses on the Eighth Air Force 100th Bomb Group and the brotherhood they formed during World War II.
Spoiler alert: They succeed.
“Masters of the Air” stars a large ensemble cast of actors representing B-17 Flying Fortress unit pilots and other airmen, based on the 2007 book “Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany” by Donald L. Miller. Notable cast members include Austin Butler (sans Elvis voice) and “The Boys in the Boat” British actor Callum Turner as bonafide leaders of the unit, and “Saltburn” star Barry Keoghan doing his best accent work. You’re almost sure that Keoghan’s Lt. Curtis Biddick will exclaim “Youse guys” to accompany his Brooklyn accent, but sadly, it never materializes.
The nine-episode series starts like other movies and television shows depicting the era: naive men saying their goodbyes to girlfriends and wives before departing to fight Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. This time, Butler’s Major Gale Cleven and Turner’s Major John Egan are leading the charge as many of their fellow countrymen will soon be faced with the horrors of war. In this limited series, much of the action takes place in the sky rather than on the ground, and it is Cleven and Egan’s friendship that takes center stage with a war-torn Europe as its backdrop.
The risks are enormous. Though the United States didn’t enter the war until much later on than some allies, the young men of the Eighth Air Force left for Europe with starry-eyed visions they could stop Hitler and the Nazis with very few issues. What proceeds is a dwindling of motivation from these men, some of whom are captured by the enemy while others perish in high-profile battles. Yet, hope prevails for many of these confident, cocky, charismatic and ultimately courageous characters, who find ways to work through their physical and psychological injuries and form bonds in a wartime setting.
At one point, 30 bombers go missing, presumed dead or captured behind enemy lines. It’s easy to label these men as heroes because, by all accounts, they are. Small details and conversations about backgrounds, romances and dedication to the missions help to define the talented ensemble. Some characters get their moment to shine, as is the case for Turner in particular, who throughout the series is the primary focus as his strategic efforts in the sky affect what happens on the ground.
Cinematic battle sequences energize the show with pulse-pounding musical scores from the gifted Blake Neely to set the pace. Persistent bombings add to panoramic shots of bodies falling from the sky with no parachutes, smoke and fire billowing from struck planes high above the ground. Much of these visuals’ success is thanks to the skill of high-priced computer-generated technology and the stunning filmmaking work of series directors Cary Joji Fukunaga, Dee Rees, Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck and Tim Van Patten.
Though the show’s reported $250 million budget and more famous names might be enough to get viewers to tune in, Anthony Boyle’s performance as the real-life Major Harry Crosby will keep them coming back for more. The Broadway veteran encapsulates the everyman dealing with the death of fellow airmen with gravitas and grace, providing much-needed realism to a large ensemble. It’s these heart-wrenching moments and Crosby’s detailed narration that make the series whole.
“Masters of the Air” shows a very specific side of World War II through the eyes of the men who flew above Europe and risked their lives for a cause worth believing in. The camaraderie formed, and top-notch visuals flying into enemy combat create a space of constant edge-of-your-seat action fitting for a World War II military epic. In the vein of their other successes, producers Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman continue to make for a winning team.
“Masters of the Air” premieres Friday, Jan. 26, on Apple TV+.