‘Masters of the Air’: Visually Riveting WWII Epic Flies Into Battle With Classic Style

With the passage of time, certain forms of entertainment start feeling left behind. It happened with Westerns when the old John Wayne form of the genre started feeling stale, once new, revisionist voices came in. Now it might be happening to WWII movies and shows. Created by John Shiban and John Orloff, Apple TV’s “Masters of the Air” is a grand, action-packed series about WWII from the perspective of fighter pilots. It is a riveting watch when it puts you inside a cockpit high in the air, facing bullets and exploding engines. But it is also dramatic curiosity. Officially, it is meant as an addition to “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific,” the acclaimed HBO series helmed by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. Though also produced by Spielberg and Hanks, the “Masters of the Air” showrunners prefer to deliver another slice of romantic nostalgia instead of an edgier portrait. 

The cast are faces and names made for Norman Rockwell paintings and vintage posters. Shiban and Orloff center the story on the “Bloody Hundredth,” a nickname given to the 100th bomber group known for enduring many losses. It’s a massive cast but the main players are young American pilots first stationed in Europe. Dominating the narrative is a particular duo, Maj. Gale “Buck” Cleven (Austin Butler) and Maj. John “Bucky” Egan (Callum Turner). Bucky is a wilder spirit who drinks hard and brawls while Buck keeps his cool. Also included in the gang is Maj. Harry Crosby (Anthony Boyle), a navigator and the younger, reserved Lt. Curtis Biddick (Barry Keoghan). With the war continuing and the pilots determined to give the Nazis hell, every mission brings with it the potential of never coming back home. A friendship made today can quickly end tomorrow in a hail of enemy fire. 

“Masters of the Air” is a sprawling production and on that note it’s a very impressive watch. Though Shiban and Orloff are in charge, Spielberg and Hanks are still credited as producers. The two have been reviving the war on TV since making the acclaimed film “Saving Private Ryan” in 1998. They can probably be credited for the show’s visual sweep where anything from a battle scene to soldiers getting beers is shot in a wide angle. What is missing is the more human element of the previous two series. “Masters of the Air” has the old-fashioned feel of a classic war adventure where little is questioned and everyone struts like a hero. No wonder the casting feels so perfect with the presence of someone like Austin Butler, who feels like a refugee from a distant American past, which is why he was so good in 2022’s “Elvis.” He even speaks as if he kept the drawl from the movie. 

To be clear, most of these characters are not fictional. The source material used is Donald L. Miller’s book, “Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany,” and Crosby’s own account, “A Wing and a Prayer.” Yet, somehow it is more of a standard movie full of archetypes. A lot of the show feels like an extended take on recent movies like “Midway,” where any conversations are meant to be mere pauses before we get to see some more fighting. Like many of the cartel shows strewn around streaming, “Masters of the Air” features plenty of the familiar detours of a WWII production. Soldiers flirt with pretty girls at taverns. Buck has a girlfriend who only shows up once. Likable characters meet tragic ends during astounding air battles and men shout lines like, “give them hell!” What is much more memorable are the moments that this series goes for stark realism. We do get to see the bloody horror of being inside a mangled plane, and what gunfire does to a trapped pilot’s face. There’s also a sense of the freezing, aerial conditions that justify those slick bomber jackets people now wear for the sake of fashion.

Even if the current headlines of new, gruesome wars might make an audience more cynical when approaching a show like “Masters of the Air,” there’s no denying how entertaining it is. It’s still fun to learn about the exploits of a pilot like Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal (Nate Mann). History buffs will like cameos of other famous names, like the Tuskegee Airmen aka the Red Tails. The visual effects team also does a striking job with air battles involving many B-17s or shots from the ground of anti-aircraft barrages lighting up the night. Ironically, such moments can also threaten to get a bit redundant in the early episodes with mission after mission dominating the narrative. It’s still tempered by enjoyable moments of testosterone, like British pilots at a tavern mocking our American heroes for being careless enough to do their bombing raids during the day. Like many historical dramas, such scenes also teach us a little something about how the allies differed in their war aims. That might just be enough for the intended audience here, who will have a good time basking in the suspense and nostalgia. It’s a good war series in a classic style that still finds a way to carry on.

Masters of the Air” begins streaming Jan. 26 with new episodes premiering Fridays on Apple TV+.