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‘Masters of the Air’ is high quality World War II schmaltz

“Masters of the Air” (MOTA) is yet another big budget World War II show about bomber pilots. The nine-part biographical miniseries on Apple TV from Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks treads well-worn grounds, yet creates a show full of interesting characters, emotional resonance, and moving historical reenactments.

In interviews, Hanks has talked about how important it was for this show to be accurate to the experiences of the soldiers in the 100th Bomb Group. MOTA follows select members of this American bomber crew from early 1943 to VE Day. I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of the show, but MOTA is no “Band of Brothers.” MOTA gets gory and dark, but just not nearly to the extent of earlier Hanks/Spielberg projects. Describing this show as “lighter” than other pieces of war media is not to suggest the show is worse off as a result, nor some fluffy Top Gun ripoff. But some people prefer their WWII shows somber and miserable, others like content that could be described as military propaganda. It’s all a matter of taste. 

Despite the definite lighter energy presented in MOTA, which stems from the cinematography and music just as much as it does the story, this show depicts a tragedy. Give or take five men are at the center of any episode, with only three appearing in all nine and these characters, who are supposedly accurate portrayals of real people, experience hundreds of men they know dying. Some episodes are dour—as they should be. While MOTA certainly could have given more time to the emotional toll the horrors of war took on the men of the 100th, the attention it does give is poignant. A far cry from earlier WWII media that depicted stoic grown men fighting an inspirational war, MOTA does its best to show the youth, fear and inner turmoil experienced by its main characters. 

There is no singular remarkable aspect of this show, nor any route that hasn’t been explored in something else. MOTA is made up of many well-made pieces that together form something interesting and enjoyable. The most important of these is the group of men at the heart of the show. Without giving away too many specifics of the plot or reducing the real men depicted into protagonists in a story, the soldiers of the 100th, their relationships, their struggles, their successes, their flaws, took this show from being another WWII story to an emotionally devastating rollercoaster that left me desperate to keep watching after an episode came to an end. It wouldn’t be fair to call MOTA feel good or wholesome, but that is how the interactions between the soldiers made me feel.

With a topic as well represented in media as WWII, in the modern day, shows and movies presenting the era seem to go one of two routes to elevate themselves. They either fixate on a specific perspective, like “The Zone of Interest” or “The Darkest Hour,” or they go super broad. MOTA fits into the latter category. Through the months the show follows these soldiers, there is not only a fleshed out depiction of the working life of 100th, showing the wide variety of jobs on an airfield and in a bomber as well as the different responsibilities depending on military rank, but MOTA also follows these men through many facets of the war. There are episodes focused on POW camps, French resistance fighters, the Blitz, British spies and much more. The variety of settings explored in MOTA not only keeps the show from sinking too deep into misery, but prevents monotony and makes the story feel large and lived in.

Given the people behind the project, it hardly seems worth mentioning, but this show is visually beautiful. Much like everything on Apple TV, it is shot like a movie. It does not hide its massive budget. Costuming, set dressing, special effects, everything is immaculate. This is where the military propaganda argument comes into play, because it is hard to fully grasp the horrors of war when the sun is shining in such an angelic manner.

The biggest failure of the show was its bungling of the arc following three Tuskegee Airmen. The arc itself had no deeply significant flaws. Scenes with these characters were as interesting and emotional as the rest of the show, but the stark lack of screen time, with the men only entering the show on its penultimate episode, did not allow time to show any depth of personality nor growth. It ultimately felt like checking a diversity box when it did not need to. 

Some audiences don’t like war dramas, if that includes you, feel free to skip MOTA. But for those who enjoy these types of historical biography, even if you traditionally prefer them in the more tortured vein of “Band of Brothers,” Masters of the Air is an extremely well-made show with a well-rounded and detailed depiction of a likeable group of bomber pilots who experience some incredible and fascinating things.

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