This is just an impression of the first two episodes of Masters of the Air a new series on Apple TV+. Although having seen the entire nine chapters of the mini-series, running one ep per week and concluding March 15, this master-of-binge-entertainment-slash-your-humble-narrator can attest that its one hell of a flight. Rousing, emotional, visually splendid in equal amounts.
Masters of the Air chronicles the excitement and anguish of Army Air Force flight crews operating out of England running harrowing bombing missions during the final years of WWII. The air campaign in Europe was controversial in its own time when the Americans introduced daylight bombing only to sustain enormous casualties. Previous missions by the Allies were performed only at night.
Masters of the Air faithfully captures the essence of flying for periods of 12 to 17 hours at a time. Despite its size a B-17 is a cramped vehicle for ten people to fly in for any period of time. You have to have athletic prowess just to catapult yourself into a trap door that serves as an entrance underneath the airplane.
Other films have dealt with this era including Twelve O’Clock High (1949) and more recently Memphis Belle (1990). There was also the Steve McQueen starrer, a British film from 1962 The War Lover, which was more of a character study of McQueen as an antagonistic pilot who pisses everyone that crosses him off. The ending of episode two literally rewrites the ending of The War Lover.
Settings like a pub in Greenland during a stopover or an Army mess hall in the UK combined with the realism of bombing missions give Masters of the Air a Band of Brothers vibe. This is an ensemble piece to be sure and it’s easy to pick and choose various character to root for.
The first episode earns its accolade by introducing who will no doubt become the main characters throughout: Austin Butler (the most exciting young actor in movies now), Callum Turner (star of Boys in the Boat), and Barry Keoghan playing pilots. There’s more than a baker’s dozen of supporting roles from faces destined for greatness. Actors like Joanna Kulig (Cold War) and Bel Powley (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) have short but important arcs that influence the outcome of individual episodes
On the first mission, out of 20 B-17s three are shot down.
Here’s the kicker, here’s the clinch, here’s the reason I had to watch every episode.
This is exactly my father’s story. Austin Butler is my Dad. Willard Bergeron flew his first mission as a pilot on 10 October, 1943, which parallels the action in the series.
In actuality Butler and Turner are based on real pilots (seen at the end of the last chapter) and the story comes from the non-fiction novel of the same name by Donald Miller.
In Catch 22 style you recycle stateside after 25 missions, then when you hit that marker it gets extended to 30 then to 50. Of my Dad’s 50-plus missions only a dozen were called back or aborted. This war bureaucracy is reflected along with realistic sets and costumes. Real bomber pilot leather jackers didn’t have pockets on the outside; good call with costumes.
A belly landing, or wheels up landing, captures exactly what it would be like to land a craft gliding from the air to the land beneath. Yet the back and forth of everyday life consists of routine banter in a jeep or glances during a briefing session.
Famous actors of the time like James Stewart and Clark Gable served alongside B-17 crews. After the first two eps you wonder if the series will portray the bombing of V-2 rocket factories in Peenemünde or raids on Berlin. Will that be explored?
It’s worth sticking around to see if Masters of the Air provides the answers to these and many other fascinating questions.