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Masters of the Air review: It’s hard to resist the pulse-quickening action of this epic Second World War tale

Masters of the Air review: It’s hard to resist the pulse-quickening action of this epic Second World War tale

“We shall fight in France,” proclaimed Winston Churchill in a 1940 speech to the House of Commons. “We shall fight on the seas and oceans,” he went on, “we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be.” It is a call to arms for Allied servicemen that has rung through generations, and been answered, once again, by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. Having fought in France, in 2001’s Band of Brothers, and on the seas and oceans in 2010’s The Pacific, it is time now for the producer duo to round out their trilogy of Second World War epics with Masters of the Air, Apple TV+’s nine-part depiction of the battle in the skies.

Gale “Buck” Cleven (Austin Butler) and John “Bucky” Egan (Callum Turner) are pilots in the 100th Bomb Group, an American Air Force unit known by its infamous nickname, The Bloody Hundredth. That moniker wasn’t applied, like Bloody Mary, because of their violence in the field, but because of the huge casualties they suffered during bombing raids deep into Nazi territory. Bucky and Buck, both majors in the company, are two sides of the same psychological coin: Butler’s Buck is quiet, ruminative, and deliberate, while Turner’s Bucky is impetuous, bombastic, and daring. When things go wrong, as they invariably do in a tin can hurtling through the air (“It’s 25,000ft up, 50 degrees below zero, the piss freezes against their skin,” one doctor observes, drily), the Bloody Hundredth will have to rely on this combination of nerve and bravado.

With Butler and Turner in the captain seats, the company is rounded out by an ensemble cast of familiar faces. Red hot Irish actor Barry Keoghan plays against type as a nice, affable bloke, Kurt, who proves too sweet for his own good, while Anthony Boyle, best known for his stage work in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, is Harry Crosby, a navigator struggling to find his wings. “I could make overthinking into an Olympic sport,” he tells a convalescing comrade. Like its forebear Band of Brothers, which starred then-up-and-comers Andrew Scott, Dominic Cooper, James McAvoy, and Tom Hardy, Masters of the Air casts a host of young British actors graduating from shows like Emmerdale, Last Tango in Halifax and even The Archers to this huge American production with a rumoured quarter-billion-dollar budget. It is testament, then, to the strength in depth of British acting, that the ensemble pulls together beautifully, acquiring the neat, mechanised hum of a B-17 engine.

Structurally, the show is quite different to Band of Brothers or The Pacific, which flung their protagonists into the attrition of unrelenting conflict. The nature of bombing raids necessitates a dynamic based on excursion and return – return being the uncertain variable. Back at base in England, there is liquor and dancing and women. There are even RAF officers to fight with, in a cartoon of anti-Englishness. “It’s a question of philosophies,” a moustachioed Englishman drawls, “bombing during the day is suicide.” Therein lies the core moral contention of Masters of the Air: is it justifiable to indiscriminately bomb enemy targets under the cover of darkness, with the inevitable civilian casualties that entails, if doing so keeps your crew safe? It is the sort of ideological inquiry that Band of Brothers eschewed in its own depiction of war, but one that is core to America’s late arrival to the fight. The RAF have been battling the Nazis for years. Weary, they prioritise personal safety over civilian protection; the more idealistic Yanks are headed for a similar disillusionment.

All of this, along with the visual splendour of the series, means there is much to recommend about Masters of the Air. And yet there’s a nagging sense that the show succumbs to the temptation of glamorisation. Butler glistens on screen like a young Adonis. He and Turner dress like rock stars: sheepskin jackets, aviator glasses, and toothpicks. The dazzlingly saturated colour palette is a far cry from the washed-out horrors of Band of Brothers, while the choreography, whether that’s in the dancehall or in a dogfight, feels more… choreographed. Of course, Apple TV+ were never going to give show creator John Orloff a reported $250m and not ask for something precision engineered. All the same, there are times when a less controlled, more naturalistic approach might have made the drama more human.

But when the first plumes of smoke from anti-aircraft guns break through the cloud cover, it is hard to resist Masters of the Air. As Paul Hardcastle famously observed, the average age of a soldier fighting in the Second World War was 26 – but the average age of the officers, those men in command, was just 28. The Bloody Hundredth, staffed by men scarcely into adulthood, might be a glamorous bunch, but they are also losing their innocence. Playing out on a canvas in the skies, this is daring, big-budget filmmaking that just about sticks the landing.