Masters of the Air, Episode 1 & 2

  • Published

“Hands of men, blasting the world asunder”

Masters of the Air, season 1, episode 1, “Part One,” and episode 2, “Part Two,” directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, written by John Orloff. Aired January 26, 2024, Apple TV+.

Masters of the Air is the third World War II miniseries from Stephen Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and Gary Goetzman, executive producers of Band of Brothers (2001) and The Pacific (2010). Like the earlier series, this most recent offering is based on a compelling book by a distinguished author, in this case Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War against Nazi Germany (Simon and Schuster, 2007) by Donald L. Miller, professor emeritus at Lafayette College and a frequent adviser to film and documentary producers.1

Spielberg, Hanks, and Goetzman put Miller’s material into the hands of head writer and co-producer John Orloff, best known for having written two episodes of Band of Brothers, including “Day of Days,” which told of Easy Company’s jump into Normandy.2 Four of the series’ nine episodes, including both under review here, were directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga. Fukunaga is an experienced producer and director of both movies and prestige TV, with credits such as the 2021 James Bond film No Time to Die and first season of HBO’s True Detective to his name.3

Masters of the Air focuses on the wartime experience of the 100th Bomb Group, a four-squadron B-17 unit based at Thorpe Abbots airfield in Norfolk. The group at its arrival in the United Kingdom comprised 37 crews of 10 Airmen—a larger pool of dramatis personae than the single infantry company featured in Band of Brothers, but still substantially more constrained in both size and scope than The Battle of Britain (1969) or Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), two of the best examples of an earlier generation’s World War II aviation epics. Confining the story to a relatively small number of individuals is characteristic of Spielberg’s approach to historical filmmaking, an approach exemplified in Empire of the Sun (1987), Schindler’s List (1994), and Saving Private Ryan (1998).

The two most prominently featured Airmen are Majors Gale Cleven and John Egan, commanders of the 350th and 418th Bomb Squadrons. Known as “Buck” and “Bucky,” Cleven and Egan were pre-war aviation cadets who became bombardment instructor pilots before their deployment with the 100th Bomb Group to the UK.4 They are well played here by Austin Butler (a 2022 Academy Award nominee for Elvis) and Callum Turner (The Boys in the Boat, 2023), who manage to portray Cleven and Egan, respectively, as confident and competent aviators who are nonetheless shaken by the violent intensity of air warfare. “Why didn’t you tell me?” asks Cleven after his first sortie, in which three 100th Bomb Group Flying Fortresses were shot down, with a presumed loss of all 30 crewmen.

What Egan doesn’t say but Fukunaga does show is that maneuvering large formations of heavy bombers in combat conditions can be almost unbearably chaotic. The group struggles to rendezvous over Thorpe Abbots, the lead aircraft aborts for a mechanical problem, the trailing element straggles, and a damaged Fort can’t maintain station on the return leg. It is evident that the crews face considerable challenges in simply aviating, navigating, and communicating, well before confronting the rigors of actual air combat. That struggle is also convincingly presented: the flak bursts and German fighters are obviously computer generated, but their size, shape, speed, and relative motion are marvelously rendered. The Playtone-Amblin CGI artists appear to have modeled these scenes on documentary footage, perhaps from the extraordinary 2018 film The Cold Blue, compiled from restored stock from William Wyler’s 1944 Memphis Belle.5 The flying scenes are so realistically and similarly composed that Masters of the Air feels at times like an expansion of The Cold Blue universe.

That these first combat missions (the 100th Bomb Group had flown on two diversions a week earlier) are depicted with a clear and unsentimental eye bodes well for the remainder of the series. The producers have gone to some lengths for authentic detail: Egan wears “his trademark sheepskin jacket,” the pre-mission brief matches historical records, the crews don parachutes from rows of racks instead of more dramatic sport-styled lockers.6 The crew coordination is likewise realistic: engine start sequences, checklist usage, and intercom chatter have the right vocabulary and rhythm. Orloff avoids the temptation of inserting exposition into these snippets, choosing instead to let the camera explain the dialogue.

Occasionally, however, he and Fukunaga allow their confidence in the audience to waver, and they reach for the crutch of a voiceover. Two episodes in, the narration is not yet a burden, as it is used infrequently, but it does feel abrupt and unnecessary. The bit about the Norden bombsight in “Part Two,” for example, added little, and one can imagine if Spielberg had been behind the camera there would have been no words at all—just a zoomed closeup of the manufacturing label while the bombardier pinned the bombsight into place.

There are a few other distracting conversations, mostly in bars. The opening scene of the first episode in which we are introduced to Buck, Bucky, and their dates is clunky. So, too, is the bar argument between our Masters and their Royal Air Force counterparts, who are dismissive of the US strategy of daylight precision bombing. Such a row might well have taken place between American and British airmen, but this depiction of it and the fight that follows are unconvincing.

These last observations are mere quibbles. The show so far succeeds wonderfully on all counts: it is accurate, believable, and watchable. In technical terms it is the equal, at least, of Band of Brothers and The Pacific, and the dialogue and acting to this point far exceed the latter. If the series is able to maintain the momentum gathered in this taxi and takeoff phase, it should have no trouble finding its strategic target.

Dr. Stephen L. Renner, Colonel, USAF, Retired

1 “Author & Historian Donald L. Miller,” Lafayette College, accessed January 31, 2004, https://sites.lafayette.edu/.

2 “John Orloff,” IMDb International Movie Database, accessed January 31, 2024, https://www.imdb.com/.

3 “Cary Joji Fukunaga,” IMDb, accessed January 31, 2024, https://www.imdb.com/.

4 “Gale Winston Cleven,” American Air Museum, accessed January 31, 2024, https://www.americanairmuseum.com/; and “John Clarence Egan,” American Air Museum in Britain, accessed January 31, 2024, https://www.americanairmuseum.com/.

5 “The Cold Blue,” IMDb, accessed January 31, 2024, https://www.imdb.com/.

6 “John Clarence Egan.”

New reviews of Masters of the Air will cover the episodes as they are aired and will be published before the airing of the next episode to allow our readers to catch up with the action if they miss a show. All of our reviewers are experts on air combat and the employment of airpower here at Air University.

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