When Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg want to executive-produce a World War II drama, it’s tough to say no. The formidable duo behind HBO’s Band of Brothers and The Pacific heads back to the front lines with Apple TV+’s Masters of the Air, debuting this Friday — I’ve seen the first three episodes — and featuring a fresh-faced group of U.S. bomber pilots who take to the skies to fight the Nazis. With painstaking period detail and a stirring score, it’s a noble endeavor… but maybe it’s a bit too noble. Masters is majestic and yet sterile, like a museum piece, with a languid pace and uneven characterization that never quite nails the human drama underneath the vintage uniforms.
Based on the Donald L. Miller book and adapted by John Orloff, who also penned a pair of Band of Brothers episodes, Masters of the Air follows the young men of the 100th Bomb Group, aka The Bloody Hundredth, a squadron of pilots tasked with carrying out dangerous bombing missions across Europe at the height of World War II. Each week, they take on a new mission, with pilots like Austin Butler’s straight-arrow Buck and Callum Turner’s mischievous Bucky — yes, they’re aware how similar their nicknames are — leading a fleet of planes into enemy territory, with no guarantees they’re ever coming back.
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Masters of the Air lives up to its name, with pulse-pounding aerial combat scenes in every episode. Our boys don’t win ‘em all, either, and no one is safe, leading to moments of high drama and heroic sacrifice. The aerial scenes are quite long, though, to the point where we feel the pilots’ exhaustion, and a little too reliant on CGI — more like a video game than a visceral physical experience. Plus, on a technical level, when the actors all have helmets and masks on, we can only see their eyes, which naturally limits the emotional connection we can have with these characters.
Surprisingly, the show is more interesting on the ground than in the air, but it could use a strong narrative spine, rather than the fleeting episodic stories we’re given. Apart from Butler and Turner, the dozens of other soldiers are so interchangeable that it’s hard to keep them straight. (Even a dynamic actor like Barry Keoghan, who just dazzled us in Saltburn, just blends in here.) It doesn’t help that they’re saddled with stock characters: Everybody’s goodhearted and gung-ho, in a way that feels bland. Butler admittedly looks great in a bomber jacket, but his Buck is a bit of a cipher, speaking in clichés when he speaks at all. Turner, though, jumps off the screen as Bucky, a charismatic loose cannon with a cheeky sense of humor. He’s the only one here with any edge, and the only one who truly commands our attention.
It’s a disappointment, because the trailer for Masters of the Air is magnificent: emotionally charged and awe-inspiring. But that’s the thing: Masters of the Air is great at the things that look great in a trailer. It’s beautiful to look at, able to stir our emotions with a single image, and it takes actually watching the show to see how that beauty is a bit empty. It’s more interested in panning across each lovingly recreated light and switch in the plane’s cockpit than in building character and drama. Some history buffs might be happy just drinking in the impeccable detail on display here, and there’s certainly a lot of that. But as a compelling human story, it doesn’t quite hit its target.
THE TVLINE BOTTOM LINE: Apple TV+’s WWII epic Masters of the Air is gorgeously filmed but dull, with a distinct lack of narrative urgency.