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The story of World War II pilots from Spielberg and Hanks

Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg first teamed up as actors and directors in the 1998 film “Saving Private Ryan.” They have continued their interest in World War II by partnering behind the scenes as producers for the last 25 years. The series “Band of Brothers” debuted in 2001, followed by “The Pacific” in 2010, both for HBO. Their latest big-budget effort is the nine-episode “Masters of the Air,” about World War II bomber pilots flying over Europe for Apple TV+.

Austin Butler (temporarily setting aside the tinge left after his Oscar-nominated turn in “Elvis”) stars alongside a cast of British and Irish actors trying out their own American accents (including “Saltburn’s” Barry Keoghan) and some nepo babes, With Sawyer Spielberg and Rafferty Law; the latter is the son of Jude Law and Sadie Frost.

They are part of the 100th Bomb Group, which consists of not only pilots but also gunners, navigators and ground crew. The missions have a rhythm: They fly for about eight hours and it’s a nightmare, head straight for anti-aircraft artillery and take hits from the German Luftwaffe. Mechanical failures are common and sometimes have nothing to do with the gunfire. It’s freezing and cramped inside the planes (I wish there was more attention to detail on some of the more mundane logistics). The bullets penetrate the B-17s’ shells and often hit the crew. Planes are being shot down. Or blow it up in the air. If the crew manages to parachute in time, they will have to worry about falling behind enemy lines and becoming prisoners of war. The odds of surviving a mission were not on their side.

But if they were lucky, they made it back to base, where they could eat a hot meal, relax with a drink, and sleep in a padded bed. That’s more than most infantry grunts could hope for. At least it was a familiar place. Yet many struggled.

If another aircraft was shot down during a mission, nearby crew members would crane their necks to see if anyone had been rescued. But sometimes the chaos of a raid could be too gnarly to keep track of what was happening, leading to a memorable scene in which the lone crewman was asked to survive a raid as the names of the missing planes were read out: “Are there any parachutes?” The men are numb and filled with shame, unable to answer.

Actor James Stewart served as a bomber pilot during the war, and watching the series reminded me of a conversation I had with writer Robert Matzen a while ago. Wrote On Stewart’s war service: “He got very happy a few times, which means shell shock, battle fatigue, what we now know as PTSD. He wasn’t afraid of bombs or bullets. “He was afraid of making a mistake and causing someone to die.”

Stewart does not appear in “Masters of the Air,” from creator John Orloff (who also wrote “Band of Brothers”), but the characters are based on real people.

Butler and Callum Turner portray close friends and the cool center of gravity of the 100th Bomb Group as Majors Gale Cleven (nicknamed Buck) and John Egan (nicknamed Bucky). Buck’s style is one of understated confidence; Bucky’s is more reckless. We meet them in 1943 when they set out for England. Butler has an understated movie star quality that grabs your attention, but most of the other characters are indistinguishable. Some have more screen time than others; Many men died on these missions. Keoghan brings street energy to the role (his performance is impressive despite his wobbly New Yawk-ese). Nate Mann stars as a lawyer-turned-pilot who not only completes the required 25 missions (few ever make it that far), but also rejoins for a second round.

Works at Anthony Boyle "Masters of the Air.”

Another important player is Anthony Boyle’s navigator. While initially a liability due to airsickness, he becomes an important figure on the base when his superiors put him behind the desk. He is known only by his last name, Crosby, and serves as the occasional voice-over for the show. The story doesn’t have a primary point-of-view character, and a lot happens when Crosby isn’t around, so the voice-overs tend to be random and disjointed.

The Tuskegee Airmen appear (one of them is played by new “Doctor Who” leading lady Ncuti Gatwa), but not until the second to last episode. It’s a shame to relegate these pilots to a footnote.

There are long stretches set in prisoner of war camps (one of which is an obvious reference to 1963’s “The Great Escape”), but there are few precious moments of moral introspection. The person who comes closest to this line is Crosby: “Be careful, while fighting monsters, you do not become a monster yourself,” he says, quoting Nietzsche. His friend just shrugs. “They predicted it would come.” The reality of war is worrying and ugly and deserves more consideration than it has received here.

The first four episodes are directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga (“No Time to Die”) and are visceral, despite the overuse of composer Blake Neely’s persistently John Williams-esque score. Bombing raids don’t need immediate editing to spice up the drama; they are scary enough on their own.

It’s a brilliant stylistic mistake, but it’s also why the series (based on Donald L. Miller’s nonfiction book “Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought in the Air War Against Nazi Germany”) appears to be of higher quality. It’s the version of what you might find on the History Channel. There’s a pretty big audience that loves that kind of thing. You are right.

What to Watch?

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World War II is certainly in the zeitgeist and “Oppenheimer” and movie “Area of ​​Interest” They both won the best movie oscar candidacy This week. Apple has another series premiering next month during this period called “The New Look,” which is about what fashion designers Christian Dior and Coco Chanel did during the war. “We Were Lucky,” a Hulu miniseries about a Jewish family separated during the Holocaust, is coming in March.

I’m not a fan of war stories, and “Masters of the Air” isn’t necessarily one either. But he intends to turn these into entertainment. The leather and wool jackets they all wear are meant to keep everyone from freezing at thousands of meters up, but the show seems almost content to make them look cool, too.

Reservations aside, the series worked like gangbusters on me for a different reason: it focused on capturing what it looked like — what it was like. vehicle, really – working towards a common goal. Feeling a deep sense of responsibility towards each other. As this goes on for over nine episodes, you can’t help but think about the lack of stories like this coming out of Hollywood.

“Masters of the Air” — 3 stars (out of 4)

Where to watch: AppleTV+

Dating Gatwa "Masters of the Air.”

Nina Metz is a Tribune critic.

nmetz@chicagotribune.com

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