How money talks. Masters of the Air, a nine-part series produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg for Apple TV+, is rumoured to have cost $250m dollars to make, and when the heat is on, it shows. The most anxiety-inducing scenes – which is to say, nearly all of them – deploy immaculate replicas of American B-17 bombers and were shot in what’s known as a volume: a vast, semi-circular bank of LED screens on to which CGI images of incoming enemy fighters were projected, the better that the actors, whether crouching in a cockpit or desperately moving a pair of compasses over a map, might experience what the viewer would eventually see. The effect is so awesome and so terrifying, you half wonder whether the cast’s stricken silences had even to be scripted.
But while the flak is perfectly rendered and the gunner’s tail position looks (poor sod) just so, there’s something awry here, too: a coolness you don’t get from an old black-and-white movie starring Kenneth More or Richard Todd. My head tells me Masters of the Air is an epic that may mark the end of a certain kind of television, and thanks to this, I give its grandiloquent theme music a pass, if not its hoary voiceover (truly awful, I think). My heart, though, finds it hard to get any real purchase on the spectacle. Never for a moment do we forget this is made for television. A forward-motion narrative has taken the place of immersive story; here are actors, not characters. It’s all so… calculated. When Major John “Bucky” Egan (Callum Turner) worries to Lieutenant Curtis Biddick (man of the moment Barry Keoghan) that he can’t feel anything, you kind of know what he means.
But I’m racing ahead here, flying woefully out of formation. Masters of the Air is the concluding drama of a trilogy that began with Band of Brothers more than 20 years ago, and continued with The Pacific. Like those series, it’s based on real events: in this case, on the 100th Bombardment Group of the US Air Force, otherwise known (because so many died) as the Bloody Hundredth. It came to East Anglia in 1943 and helped to change the war’s course by destroying German targets. The B-17, with its ten-man crew, was known as the Flying Fortress. But this is misleading. Two episodes into the series, and of 350 airmen stationed at the base, 66 have already been lost. Unlike the British, who fly only at night, the Americans attack in broad daylight. Each raid is akin to a suicide mission.
At the heart of Masters of the Air is the relationship between Bucky and his friend, Major Gale “Buck” Cleven (the Buck/Bucky thing is a running joke, in a realm where nicknames, like good-luck tokens, are emotionally essential). Will they make it out alive? Cleven is played by Austin Butler, the actor best known for his Oscar-nominated performance as Elvis in Baz Luhrmann’s biopic, and yes, his pulchritude is quite preposterous: the hovercraft lips, the hair that stands as high as corn. But of all the actors – the (very male) cast is huge – he’s the most quietly impressive, bringing to the part a stillness I recognise from a now long-dead relative of mine who flew in the war. Sometimes this stillness masks bravery and determination, and sometimes it covers fear. But either way, it swaddles him: a layer no less protective than his sheepskin flying jacket.
Part of Spielberg’s project, he has said, is to memorialise the Greatest Generation, and this series duly leans towards documentary: places, times, stuff about carburettors. In the process, it forgets all about wit – a mistake, I would say, for how else do the desperately frightened survive but by resorting to black humour? When I saw Jack Absolute Flies Again, a comedy about British airmen, at the National Theatre 18 months ago, my laughter was almost uncontrollable, and yet, this didn’t preclude deeper, fiercer, possibly more important emotions. It only softened me up for them; sadness crept in through the crack blown open in my defences by the hilarity. The surprise of my tears when they came! In the end, then, perhaps it’s only my Englishness that causes Masters of the Air to leave me unmoved. So many American heroes. So very few jokes.
Masters of the Air