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‘Masters of the Air’ Review: Smooth Takeoff, Shaky Landing

Anthony Boyle, Austin Butler and Callum Turner in season one of "Masters of the Air."
Anthony Boyle, Austin Butler and Callum Turner in season one of "Masters of the Air." By Courtesy of Robert Viglasky/Apple TV+
By Jackie Chen, Contributing Writer

“Masters of the Air,” the third and latest installment of executive producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks’ saga of interconnected World War II miniseries, joins the ranks of cult classics “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific” but faces turbulence in developing a unique voice and charm.

The nine episode miniseries, based on historian Donald L. Miller’s 2007 book of the same name, chronicles members of the 100th Bomb Group’s exploits during World War II. With inspiring and harrowing plotlines drawn from real life, “Masters of the Air” illuminates the fierce loyalty, foolhardiness, and conquered fear that flight in B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers (called “forts”) demands while under Luftwaffe attack. It follows a similar structure to “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific,” focusing on the narrative threads of select, leadership-oriented characters throughout their experience in the decisive battles of their theater of war.

Through the show’s spotlight on the ride-or-die friendship between Majors Gale “Buck” Cleven (Austin Butler) and John “Bucky” Egan (Callum Turner), “Masters of the Air” shares more commonalities with the bond between Major Richard “Dick” Winters (Damian Lewis) and Captain Lewis Nixon (Ron Livingston) in “Band of Brothers.” However, while “Band of Brothers” also devoted significant attention to lower-ranking minor characters — maximizing their brief screentime with deft explorations of hopes, dreams, and angst — “Masters of the Air” misses the mark of creating memorable, fleshed-out heroes against the tumultuous and brutal backdrop of history and sacrifice. Buck and Bucky are static characters suspended in wartime, with little consideration given to any flux in their friendship or futures.

“Masters of the Air” is haunted by unfulfilled expectations. This fault may likely be attributed to external pressures, such as the already-established successes of “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific.” The third installment will inevitably draw comparison and face the uphill battle of matching — let alone surpassing — the raw emotion and sheer violence of both prior series. Furthermore, the saga’s production switch from HBO to Apple TV+ may have inherently limited the content’s explicitness, as “Masters of the Air” features far less graphic sex and gore. However, this fault is also due to the show’s own marketing efforts, which created an imbalance between expected versus actual screentime of highly advertised characters.

Popular, trending actors such as Barry Keoghan (playing Lt. Curtis Biddick) and Ncuti Gatwa (playing 2nd Lt. Robert Daniels) were featured heavily in promotional videos on TikTok, creating the impression that they would be main characters — but they actually appear in only three and two episodes, respectively. The Tuskegee Airmen, which include Gatwa’s character, are similarly featured in the show’s marketing and raise the possibility of the series diving deep into the injustices of military segregation, but their two-episode fractional screentime barely scratches the surface of these historically overlooked men’s lives. Alongside the Tuskegee Airmen, Alessandra “Sandra” Westgate’s (Bel Powley) espionage efforts and the entire unit’s preparations for D-Day are also hastily covered and condensed. The series’s nine episodes, as opposed to its counterpart’s ten, is a head-scratching decision considering how crammed the show’s content is already. An extra episode would have allowed more space to examine the crucial contributions of those behind the scenes, as well as maintaining consistency with the show’s companion series.

Despite these downfalls, “Masters of the Air” is nevertheless captivating. Rapid, ever-changing camera angles during flying missions ramp up suspense and adrenaline, including the audience in the close-quarters nature of the fight. Visually, “Masters of the Air” is second only to “The Pacific” — the series features stunning visuals of the sky, ocean, and countless planes dotting the expanse. Aside from explosive aerial action, the show also blends in subtler feats of covert cleverness and ingenuity on the ground, where the stakes are still just as high. Despite its cursory rush in the later half of the miniseries, “Masters of the Air” still has enough momentum to fuel viewers' interest to the end.

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