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'Masters Of The Air' series review: Callum Turner & Austin Butler pilot the Apple TV+ action drama

Austin Butler and Callum Turner smiling in uniforms at a bar
Apple TV+

They might not always soar but it's good to catch an early takeoff on the American war stories since they do seem to be obligatory every year. Action drama Masters Of The Air adapts Donald L. Miller's book 'Masters Of The Air: America's Bomber Boys Who Fought The Air War Against Nazi Germany', a lengthy title that is only rivalled in its egregiousness by the miniseries' title sequence, which is almost as long as most wars. The series depicts the triumphs and tragedies of the 100th Bomb Group, an American heavy bomber crew, during World War II when the group was responsible for dangerous aerial manoeuvres and dropping bombs in the fight against Nazi Germany.

Stationed in England at the time, we follow the adventures of real-life figures, such as majors John ''Bucky'' Egan (Callum Turner), Gale ''Buck'' Cleven (Austin Butler) and Robert ''Rosie'' Rosenthal (Nate Mann) who lead the pilots, as well as lieutenant Harry Crosby (Anthony Boyle) who's a navigator on these missions.

An introduction to the show or one's thoughts about it is rather challenging since the first three episodes that feature that initial setup are by far the weakest part, being in fact even lousy and poorly composed television. Cary Joji Fukunaga's direction is desperately missing coherence when it comes to setting the tone with the cast—other than in one specific biking scene—or making the action feel as dangerous as it most likely was in reality. Showrunner John Orloff and his writing staff aren't able to come up with a reason why these characters matter in the time span that we are with them; it's actually often difficult to remember who is who or what's their purpose.

Much of the warning signs are also either visible or audible as the choices made with the hair and makeup (designed by Kirstin Chalmers) are truly baffling since even when characters are drunk at a bar, everyone's hair feels way too perfect and untouched. That's just one of the minor details that add up later when you realise that this is nothing but a masquerade pretending to be about something equivalent to life and death. Those character details also perhaps harm the acting performances, notably Butler's who is completely incomprehensible most of the time with his mumbling and bland facial expressions, to the point that it's a crime that the production sound mixer, Fukunaga or someone else didn't step in and admit that he sticks out like a sore thumb.

Fourth episode finally raises the quality before the fifth episode (directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck) finally begins to show signs that there might be something worth exploring here. Of course, for many that will be much too late but it is almost worth sticking around for thanks to Boyle who becomes the driving force with proper range in his outing and palpable emotionality. A few crafts also begin to strike a chord, particularly the thunderous sound editing (supervised by Michael Minkler and Jack Whittaker) that makes the war machine sound unstoppable and Chris Seagers' production design, which recreates a lot of harrowing destruction.

You get a little bit of that artistry and emotional gravitas in the final few episodes but not quite enough to dig the series out of the trench that the construction as a whole dug earlier. Masters Of The Air more or less pretends to be about sacrifice but based on how uneven and frankly uneventful it is, it's fairly hard to say confidently what it was really about. More often than not it just comes across as a vanity project for famous producers who tell themselves that this is a story worth telling when very few creatives involved reached their potential or made you care about these characters. It's a major problem if you as a viewer don't know if the characters themselves even cared about what they were doing or saying.

Smileys: Sound editing, Anthony Boyle

Frowneys: Hairstyling, Austin Butler, writing

Guess it's good to save a Buck or two after all.


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