Masters of the Air review: Spielberg and Hanks combine again for big budget follow-up to Band of Brothers

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
3 Min Read
Masters of the Air is an Apple TV+ production.
Masters of the Air is an Apple TV+ production. Credit: Supplied/Apple TV+

When the three most lauded TV shows of the past year – Succession, The Bear and Beef - have been contemporary stories with modern characters beset by 21st century problems, you start to wonder if there’s still a place for a traditional war drama.

Turns out, yes. Especially if that series is as well-crafted as Masters of the Air, a handsome production which counts among its producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.

A spiritual companion to the pair’s earlier war epics Band of Brothers and The Pacific, Masters of the Air is the third flank in a collection that has already explored the gritty experiences of soldiers on land and on the sea.

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As the title suggests, Masters of the Air takes to the skies, recounting the deadly adventures of the US Air Force’s 100th Bomb Group, a World War II unit which suffered heavy casualties.

The American command’s decision to fly missions low and during the day – for the purpose of precision bombing – meant the men and their planes were easy targets for the Germans’ surface-to-air artillery and enemy fighters.

The combat scenes are harrowing and chaotic. Bullets tear through the bombers’ metal fuselage before finding its real target, a human. Wings are shredded and engines fail. Some lucky souls eject, only to parachute themselves behind enemy lines.

It’s a grim reminder of the Russian roulette of war, especially for the many generations in the west who have no direct experience of living through such horrible times.

Masters of the Air is an Apple TV+ production.
Masters of the Air is an Apple TV+ production. Credit: Supplied/Apple TV+

The recreation of these sequences is top-shelf, adeptly directed by experienced filmmakers such as Cary Fukunaga (No Time To Die), Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Captain Marvel), Dee Rees (Mudbound) and Tim Van Patten (The Sopranos, The Pacific) working with an enviable budget (reportedly more than $US200 million).

The tension is cranked up by the emotional stakes, the very real possibility that a character you’re already emotionally invested in is about to be killed – which does happen, so be prepared.

The pandemonium and death in the air is offset by the warmth and camaraderie on the ground. Whether in the mess hall, in the barracks or daring each other on to woo one of the women on the base, the fraternity is strong.

The human stories are anchored by Major Gale Cleven (Austin Butler) and Major John Egan (Callum Turner), two pilots who have been friends for years. Their shared history points to the fact that all these young men came from somewhere, from families, friends and communities who want to see them come home. Many of them won’t.

Masters of the Air is an Apple TV+ production.
Masters of the Air is an Apple TV+ production. Credit: Supplied/Apple TV+

Masters of the Air features a stacked cast of this generation’s hot young guns, led by Oscar nominee and Elvis star Butler, and The Capture and Fantastic Beasts’ Turner. Their chiselled jaws, high cheekbones and irrepressible charisma is matched by a slightly mournful onscreen presence, fitting for characters which stare down death every time those propellers start to spin.

They’re supported by a huge ensemble cast that includes Barry Keoghan (Saltburn, Banshees of Inisherin), Ncuti Gatwa (Doctor Who, Sex Education), Anthony Boyle (Tetris) and Raff Law (son of Jude). The series was filmed in England so while Butler is American, almost everyone else is British or Irish.

The series has been a long time in the making. It was originally announced in 2013 by HBO, which made Band of Brothers and The Pacific, but then languished in development for the better part of a decade until Apple TV+ swooped in. It then took another two years between when it wrapped filming and this week’s release.

Trying to match the standards set by its predecessors is intimidating, that it matched it is impressive.

Masters of the Air is on Apple TV+ from Friday, January 26

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