‘Masters of the Air’ is a Soaring Victory for Apple TV+

While “Masters of the Air” falls into many stereotypes of World War II present in American depictions of the conflict, the show sets itself apart through emotionally moving depictions of the soldiers at its center.

Since the end of World War II nearly 80 years ago, countless TV shows, movies and video games have been made about the conflict from seemingly every combatant nation.

Despite this oversaturation, Apple TV+ miniseries “Masters of the Air ” stands out, guided by a production team with a proven track record — with executive producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks at the helm. 

“Masters of the Air” — an adaptation of Donald Miller’s eponymous book — features the story of four airmen in the U.S. 8th Air Force’s 100th Bomb Group, a unit tasked with bombing Nazi Germany into submission, during World War II. 

Released in weekly installations since Jan. 26, the series follows them from their first flight to England to the end of the war in Europe. Throughout the course of the series, characters deal with the trauma of combat, losing contact with friends and the potential of becoming a prisoner of war. 

“Masters of the Air” falls to the formulaic, American-lensed post-war content. The show features a predominantly white male cast with subtle patriotic themes and can be likened to action films like “Saving Private Ryan” and “Midway” and even biopics like “Oppenheimer” and “Hacksaw Ridge.”

While the miniseries may not differ in narrative, the story itself is unique. “Masters of the Air” is filled with incredible contrast — both visually and emotionally. The beauty of high-altitude aviation is juxtaposed with the horrific sight of planes engulfed in flames. Other times, jubilant scenes of airmen drinking with their comrades are immediately followed by those same airmen finding out one of their friends didn’t return to the airfield after a mission. 

Neglected by former works is the experience of aircrews during the war. Sure, there’s the occasional air battle in a movie like David Ayer’s “Fury,” but viewers don’t learn much from those one-offs. Oftentimes, soldiers simply look up in awe at the otherworldly scenes above their heads and nothing more. 

“Masters of the Air” illustrated that there was a lot more to the fight above than just streaks painting the sky. 

In adapting Miller’s book, executive producers Tom Hanks, Steven Spielburg and Garry Goetzman had many plot lines to choose from. They could’ve easily turned the miniseries into a biopic about the so-called “Bomber Mafia” — a group of generals who were in charge of the air strategy before, during and after the war — or a period piece about racial tensions in England during war. 

Instead, the miniseries takes the form of the executive producers’ previous Emmy-winning miniseries “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific,” focusing on the men who fought rather than the reasons why. 

While the life of an airman may have looked easy to an infantryman, “Masters of the Air” demonstrates it was anything but. Scenes of air combat are both jarring and heartbreaking.  As enemy fighters and rockets cut through the bomber formation, one airman tries, in vain, to save a trapped comrade — jumping out seconds before the plane explodes with a gut-wrenching, “I’m sorry.”

The miniseries is anchored by several standout performances — Austin Butler’s portrayal of Gale Clevens among them. Despite all the trauma his character endures, Butler’s delivery is cool and collected throughout the series, calming those around him. His portrayal is comparable to the Golden Globe nominated performance of Damien Lewis as Richard Winters in “Band of Brothers.” 

This is in direct contrast to his best friend John Eagan, played by Callum Turner. He starts the series as a cocky pilot convinced that if there were only two bombers left, it would be him and Clevens flying them. Turner’s initial performance is reminiscent of stereotypical jock you either love to death or hate passionately. Yet, by the end, it’s hard not to root for him as the experience of the air war leaves him somber and nearly broken.

The most dynamic character is Harry Crosby, played by Anthony Boyle. Boyle’s initial performance is almost the complete opposite of Turner’s. He starts the conflict as an insecure airman but, similar to Turner, he ends the war as a hardened-yet-introspective senior officer, having seen most of the friends end up dead or captured. Because of this, he resorts to increasingly unsavory methods to keep going. 

Crosby’s foil is late-comer Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal, played by Nate Mann. While Mann may not be the most dynamic, his stubborn determination drives the plot forward — no matter what the war brings. 

While “Masters of the Air” may seem formulaic, it masterfully tells the story of those who fought in the skies above Europe in a dynamic and engaging way. This alone makes it a standout miniseries and it shines as a war story in its finest form. 

“Masters of the Air” is now streaming on Apple TV+.

Featured image courtesy of Apple TV+

Aidan Cahill

Aidan Cahill