'Masters of the Air' is 'Band of Brothers' for a New Era

Austin Butler as Major Gale Cleven and Callum Turner as Major John Egan are the new Band of Brothers in Masters of the Air

Austin Butler as Major Gale Cleven and Callum Turner as Major John Egan in Masters of the Air

Apple TV+

Every decade since the new millennium has boasted a prestige miniseries following an American battalion in the Second World War, all produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, all looking at a different corner of the fight against the Nazis: Band of Brothers stormed our screens in 2001; The Pacific held its territory in 2010; after an elongated wait, Masters of the Air is finally bombs away in 2024. 

Making a swift counter maneuver from HBO to Apple TV+ during some 2019 network reshuffling, it’s now clear why the limited series, about an airplane bombing company based in East Anglia, England, took its time to reach our screens (just over 10 years after first being announced at HBO). Technology needed to catch up so the many expensive bombing raids and dogfights could make it to the small screen. When you adjust for inflation, you could build just shy of 100 “Flying Fortress” B-17 bombers for what it cost to make Masters of the Air. It seems like it was worth it: Masters is robust, stirring entertainment, old-school in its uncomplicated storytelling without losing the freshness and grit of modern war media.

Weirdly enough, Masters of the Air’s biggest draw may not be its battles but its cast. Like Band of Brothers before it, the ensemble of fighting-age soldiers, pilots, bombers, and navigators is filled with a who’s who of rising talent, led by the charisma supernova of Austin Butler. Sure, many will be excited to watch The Boys in the Boat’s Callum Turner, Saltburn star and Irish treasure Barry Keoghan, or Doctor Who himself Ncuti Gatwa (unfortunately, like his role in Barbie, Gatwa features very little). But Butler, with his deep voice, piercing gaze, and James Dean-esque physicality, is fated to draw attention no matter what project he’s in. (Check back in with us post-Dune 2 to see if a bald, white-painted Butler still makes us swoon).

Ncuti Gatwa as 2nd Lt. Robert Daniels stands in front of his aircraft in Masters of the Air

Ncuti Gatwa as 2nd Lt. Robert Daniels in Masters of the Air

Apple TV+

But Masters of the Air should always have been an ensemble show. To its credit, after the first few episodes center Turner and Butler, we broaden our horizons to various compelling but less recognizable faces. The series is narrated by Lt. Harry Crosby (Anthony Boyle), who takes the expository roles previously provided by talking heads of real veterans in Band of Brothers.

It’s less effective in voiceover here – Crosby’s insights are informative but feel a bit like rote historical bullet points. But in front of the camera, Boyle shines as the meek but capable Crosby reveals himself as a skilled navigator and a firm favorite character. His quick-thinking, fierce loyalty, and soldierly vulnerability are nothing new for war drama, but there’s a sincerity that helps the archetypal arc shine. In a series that depends on a solid ensemble conveying a brotherly bond, characters like Crosby, who could feel simple on the page, are uplifted by a similarly effective and game cast – his story is bolstered by the different shades of wartime experiences reflected around him. 

As Maj. Gale Cleven (known as “Buck”), Butler brings a classic Hollywood war hero vibe, but he feels like a supporting character to Turner’s Maj. John Egan (known as “Bucky” — yes, they address their near-identical names). Bucky feels like the most erratic and livewire character, acting out in frustration and despair as the 100th Company racks up losses of planes and pilots. A lot of Masters of the Air feels less character-driven and more, well, history-driven – after all, a single company can’t be the sole decider in an airborne front, but rather a lens through which we get a sense of what the war was like. Dotted around the show are emotional grace notes that keep pulling us in, giving us something to chew on between the spectacular battles and life-or-death skirmishes.

Anthony Boyle as Major Harry Crosby rides up to the airfield in Masters of the Air

Anthony Boyle as Major Harry Crosby rides up to the airfield in Masters of the Air

Apple TV+

Even though there’s some ropey Air Force Simulator-level CG throughout the series, the most effective tension is not found in Nazi dogfights but inside the aircrafts themselves. As it turns out, flying a B-17 is really hard; with multiple gunner turrets, heavy metal walls threatening to buckle inwards from enemy gunfire, and the necessity for bombers to always stay in concentrated formation, Masters makes its effortful, cumbersome sky battles feel like our pilots are no less at risk of being shot, burned, and de-limbed than if they were sieging the beaches of Normandy. 

Even though Masters succeeds as a solidly captivating weekly watch, with affecting character developments, compelling depictions of wartime relationships, and flashy setpieces in nearly every episode, the first few episodes suffer the most from an unclear focus — you’ll notice Episodes 1 to 3 end on almost the exact same type of thin emotional beat. Not only that, but the Tuskegee Airmen get sidelined almost immediately after being introduced in the penultimate episode, pushing a vital slice of WW2 history — and all its political nuance — away from the limelight. Still, on the shoulders of a cast who knows precisely how to balance gruffness with charm, it’s nine episodes of good company. Forget the planes; Masters of the Air is the kind of show to make you want to buy a bomber jacket and do something 40s-style with your hair.

Masters of the Air debuts on Apple TV+ with two episodes on Friday, January 26, followed by one a week through Friday, March 15, 2024.

Picture shows: Rory Doherty

Rory Doherty is a writer of criticism, films, and plays based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He's often found watching something he knows he'll dislike but will agree to watch all of it anyway. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.

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