By Nicholas Kanakis
Reminiscent of Hollywood days of old, Masters of the Air, the new miniseries brought to us by the same production team responsible for Band of Brothers and The Pacific, premiered in Hollywood last week at the old Fox Theater in Westwood, California. Based upon the bestselling book of the same name by Dr. Donald Miller, Masters of the Air depicts the graphic reality of aerial combat against Nazi Germany during World War II.
Like Band of Brothers, the critically acclaimed 2001 miniseries which follows Easy Company of the 101st Airborne on their trek across Europe, Masters of the Air follows the heroic exploits of one unit: the 100th Bomb Group, also known as the “Bloody 100th” due to heavy losses sustained on several missions. Arriving in England in 1943, the 100th, along with hundreds of other bomb groups, was responsible for the strategic bombardment of Hitler’s Fortress Europe. Broken into nine distinct episodes, Masters of the Air chronicles the stories of individual airmen, their crews, their mechanics, technicians, doctors, chaplains and even fighter escorts and its release has been highly anticipated with the project taking nearly 10 years to come to fruition.
Austin Butler and cast were in attendance along with four surviving members of the original “Bloody 100th” during the premiere and Executive Producers Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg introduced the premiere highlighting many of the challenges faced on set while filming on location in England during the height of COVID in 2020. The budget for Masters of the Air was staggering as no detail was overlooked in relation to equipment, uniforms, and authenticity of the period. Two full-scale replica B-17s were built along with a nearly full-sized air base, bombed-out cityscapes, and a Stalag POW camp. The scale of the project cannot be overstated and as the lights dimmed, we in attendance got our first glimpse of this epic work.
To say I was blown away would simply be an understatement. Hanks and Spielberg did outstanding justice to the airmen who flew in such harrowing conditions and their attention to detail was impeccable. As a pilot, I found myself gripping my armrest and stunned by the scale and realism of the combat visuals. Austin Butler as Major Buck Cleven and Callum Turner as Major John Egan portrayed the human dynamic of eagerness for combat dashed against its harsh realities with a relatable ease. The writing did an outstanding job of capturing the playfulness of aircrew juxtaposed against the drama of aerial combat without seeming pandering or too overly “Hollywood.”
Filmed without the use of flying aircraft, there has been much speculation as to the accuracy and believability of the aerial scenes, and I believe audiences will be impressed by the accuracy and high fidelity of visuals manifesting formations of airplanes that simply aren’t possible today. The use of their full-scale replicas and tight shots of actors’ faces and actions place the viewers right in the airplane without feeling fake. Outstanding technical advisors made crews feel at home in the aircraft in a way that would befit a 20-year-old young man with hundreds of hours of training: cool, deliberate, and methodical. Certainly, there were some liberties taken regarding true historical accuracy, mainly relating to when certain crews arrived in the theater, but it did so in a way that propels the storyline and drama forward.
As the lights rose at the end of the first episode, I found myself in quiet reflection of the tremendous sacrifices made by the aircrew of the Hundredth and the four veterans in attendance that evening. The premiere only showcased the first episode, but if the production value and drama remain as good as the first episode views are truly in for a treat.
Masters of the Air will be released on Apple TV Plus on January 26th, 2024.