Credit: Apple TV+
by Matt Lynch Featured Film Streaming Scene

Masters of the Air — John Shiban & John Orloff

February 14, 2024

It’s been over 20 years since the legendary HBO miniseries Band of Brothers captivated you and your dad with its scrupulous, detailed, and reverent depiction of the European theater of World War II, and almost 15 since its sequel, The Pacific, similarly illuminated the conflict on the other side of the globe. Now we have Masters of the Air, about the air war over Europe and the brave American flyboys who comprised the “Bloody 100th,” the Eighth Air Force’s 100th Bomb Group, so-called because it legendarily saw disproportionate casualties and was generally seen by command as a jinxed unit.

Our two leads — pilots both — are Major Gale “Buck” Cleven (Austin Butler) and his bestie, his brother from another mother, Major John “Bucky” Egan (Callum Turner). (It may behoove you to pay close attention in the opening couple episodes to remember just which one is Buck and which is Bucky, as they’re rarely referred to by their Christian names. Be so advised.) We also get to know Major Harry Crosby (Anthony Boyle), the navigator (who also serves as the narrator for the series), and eventually Lt. Col. Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal (Nate Mann).

Unlike the previous two series, there’s not a lot of setup or exposition to introduce you to the situation or the characters. Band of Brothers had, for example, a lengthy amount of training for the boys before they got sent to the front. No such dithering here; we’re dropped straight into the jump seat, and initially things are both narratively and dramatically murky. As noted, it’s not always clear which Buck is which, and complicating things a lot further is that everyone sort of looks and sounds alike, and they’re all wearing flight masks and talking over static-y radios all the time, making merely following along with what’s happening in the immediate moment a bit of a trial.

Things manage to settle down after the initial chaos into something much more serialized than Masters’ two predecessors. Those series tended toward the episodic, covering specific battles, whereas this spends a great deal of its time with its core characters, especially in the latter half when Rosenthal and Crosby both must handle bouts of often crippling PTSD, while Buck and Bucky each wind up shot down behind enemy lines. But despite the core structural difference, Masters is no less engrossing or gorgeous. The air combat sequences, in particular, are truly harrowing, full of carefully designed chaos, and staged with some immaculate digital VFX; Apple has clearly spared no expense here. And the directing team (Cary Joji Fukunaga, Dee Rees, Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, and Tim Van Patten) cohere superbly; there’s a very specific house style here that stands out from most prestige TV nowadays by eschewing copious shallow focus close-ups and instead leaning back to take in as much space as possible, even in the cramped confines of a bomber.

On the other hand, the characters never truly burrow themselves into the audience. Crosby is an unusual choice for narrator — at least for this writer, it was clear who was doing the voiceover until almost two-thirds of the way through the show — as he experiences probably the least amount of heroics, whereas Rosenthal (who gets the least screen time of the main four leads) seems to endure the most psychic suffering. Butler and Turner as Buck and Bucky respectively, however, make quite dashing leads, not dissimilar from the old-fashioned heroes of WWII movies of the ’40s and ’50s (Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo would especially appear to be a key influence here). Butler is particularly charming, so much so that his extended disappearance from the middle act leaves a bit of a charisma vacuum.

Other odd decisions interrupt the pacing, as well. A late introduction of Black airmen feels a tad tokenish in execution, despite the historical accuracy — their story would have been well-served by being more organically laced into the show as a whole. And a mysterious character played by Bel Powley seems there merely so that the cast isn’t entirely male, as well as to give Crosby something to do while he’s off on some administrative job. But these are minor distractions in an otherwise compelling production. If Apple weren’t releasing these episodes one week at a time, viewers would burn through them in typical binge fashion — it’s quite simply as good as this sort of stuff gets. Plus, it ticks an early holiday shopping box: add Masters of the Air to your dad’s Blu-ray shelf this Christmas.

CREATOR: John Shiban & John Orloff;  CAST: Austin Butler, Callum Turner, Barry Keoghan, Sawyer Spielberg, Isabel May;  DISTRIBUTOR: Apple TV+;  STREAMING: January 26