There are two instant tells that Masters of the Air, the new World War II limited series executive-produced by Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and Gary Goetzman, is the product of a different decade than the trio’s previous prestige tributes to the Greatest Generation, Band of Brothers and The Pacific. The first is that their latest series—though originally optioned by the network that commissioned its predecessors, HBO—is appearing on Apple TV+. The second is the absence of the actual aviators whose exploits this long-in-the-making companion piece depicts.
When Band of Brothers debuted in 2001, its episodes were preceded by clips of surviving veterans of Easy Company, some of them still looking hale and hearty less than 60 years after VE Day. The Pacific, which followed less than nine years later, also featured the faces of a few former Marines who were witnesses to the war. Now, more than 22 years after Band of Brothers, almost 14 after The Pacific, and nearly 80 after the fighting stopped, the combatants are almost all gone. As Goetzman acknowledged, “We now don’t have many people left to talk to.”
The unfortunate fact that so few participants still live to tell their tales puts the onus on others to pass the word down, and Masters of the Air embraces that responsibility with the same gravity, reverence, and care that the TV trilogy’s first two installments did. The loss of living links makes a conflict and its causes seem remote. After enough time has elapsed, even global struggles get relegated to the back pages of the past, an infinite not-now that many dismiss as divorced from the present. Masters of the Air aims to entertain, but also puts its B-17-sized budget ($250 million) toward convincing viewers that this part of the past is worth contemplating and appreciating. Save for those missing survivors and the change in platform—which will likely limit the series’ reach relative to the now-Netflix-boosted HBO shows—it does so by following almost the same formula as the preceding series, to almost the same effect. Masters of the Air is basically Band of Brothers with “Air Force” substituted for “Airborne.” I don’t know about you, but that’s exactly what I wanted.
Band of Brothers followed the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division through the invasion of Europe, and The Pacific chronicled the 1st Marine Division’s arduous journey toward Japan. Masters of the Air, a dramatization of the same-named book by Donald L. Miller—if you can use “dramatization” to describe something that was so dramatic in real life—trains its sights on the 100th Bomb Group as the Eighth Air Force pays a steep price for supremacy over the Luftwaffe. The altitude is different, but all the franchise hallmarks are here: An extremely long title sequence set to swelling music that’s designed to inspire the spectator to stand and salute. Actors from across the pond posing as cornfed all-American boys, despite several acute cases of resting Brit face. An ensemble cast of up-and-comers who drift on and off the screen as the war rages and prominent characters are killed, captured, or shipped home and replaced by fresh recruits. A bittersweet, costly campaign in which the good guys weather bloody battles and ultimately—spoilers—win the war, but even the victors are scarred (inside and out) by their experiences.
This time around, the early leads are played by Austin Butler and Callum Turner, who go by Buck and Bucky, respectively. (Some series might have changed one of their names for the audience’s sake, but not a series that venerates its protagonists and prioritizes verisimilitude as much as Masters of the Air.) Butler looks a little like the young Val Kilmer’s Iceman, and despite his best efforts, still seems to be using his Elvis voice. (If Feyd-Rautha in Dune: Part Two also sounds like Elvis, Butler may need a vocal intervention.) Although he’s charismatic and credible as a leader of men, he’s almost too much of a matinee idol to be believable in wartime, always unruffled and rarely unkempt no matter how hard the going gets.
Turner is a live wire in the mold of The Pacific’s Jon Bernthal, which works as a mercurial complement to Butler’s stoicism. The pair pal around (on screen and off) with Barry Keoghan, who valiantly attempts a New York accent. (Is it possible that the casting call confused this with a series about the RAF?) In later episodes, that trio cedes some of the spotlight to Anthony Boyle’s Harry Crosby and Nate Mann’s Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal. Mann’s Old Hollywood hero mien and mustachioed, Gable/Flynn face only make Masters seem like more of a throwback to World War II epics of old.
Although the franchise has featured realistic-looking combat from the start, it’s never been more intense—or, I assume, more expensive—than when Masters of the Air takes flight. The pilots, gunners, radiomen, and navigators huddled in their bombs can’t look their enemies in the eye as they kill and get killed, but that doesn’t make the Flying Fortresses any more impregnable, the butcher’s bills any less severe, or the injuries any less grisly. Save, perhaps, for The Pacific’s landing at Peleliu, my heart has never pounded as hard as it did during several sorties of the Bloody Hundredth. Midway through the series, I mentioned to a friend that the dogfights were “melting my face off,” which made me feel bad when that very fate befell an unlucky crewman. They look like the best Star Wars space battles you’ve ever seen, which makes sense considering George Lucas studied World War II dogfights for inspiration and modeled the Millennium Falcon after the B-29.
One wouldn’t expect such frantic action to get tiresome, but while war is hell, it’s also monotonous. As one mission blends into another, the series risks sending its audience into the same stupor its pilots sink into. The problem with repeatedly flying the same routes is that the scenery is always the same, and although the claustrophobic quarters of the bombers suit these scenes well, it doesn’t allow a lot of visual variation. Wisely, the series soon widens its lens. As with Band of Brothers and, in particular, The Pacific, some of the most memorable action takes place far from the front. Much of the second half is ground bound—via weekend passes, therapeutic leaves, and a prison stint straight out of Stalag 17—which probably helped trim the budget (as did, no doubt, the downsizing from the old series’ 10 episodes to the new series’ nine, the first two of which went up on Friday).
More so than its predecessors—a third reflection of its different decade of origin—Masters of the Air tries to stress that the war wasn’t won by white guys alone. Which, while accurate, is a challenging truth to convey through a story centered on an all-white, all-male unit. Masters of the Air doesn’t really rise to that challenge: The token Tuskegee Airmen glimpsed in the opening credits don’t show up until Episode 7, and though they’re well portrayed by Ncuti Gatwa, Branden Cook, and Josiah Cross, among others, their roles are too little and too late for them to feel like full-fledged characters. When Cook’s flier laments how long it’s taken for his fighter group to be deployed to Europe, he could just as easily be speaking in a metatextual way about being sidelined in this series. The only woman to receive a significant role, the spunky and mysterious Sandra Wingate (Bel Powley), fades from view just when we start to understand her. In the end, this isn’t her story, except when it intersects with one of the men’s.
Perhaps in part because it’s one episode short of its forebears, Masters of the Air skimps somewhat on its main characters’ inner lives and home lives. We skip their origin stories instead of following them from flight school, à la the beginning of Band of Brothers at Camp Toccoa. (Remember David Schwimmer in that show?) Nor do we meet their families or follow them back to the States, as we did after hostilities ceased in The Pacific. Thus, we’re left to imagine how they handle the misgivings we glimpse when our heroes occasionally cast lingering looks at bombed-out buildings in England and Germany alike. But Masters of the Air doesn’t permit much ambiguity. The series contrives a way for one of its Jewish pilots to stumble across a concentration camp, a sight so excruciating that he later reassures his comrade: “They made us do some tough things, but we had to. There was no other way. The things these people were capable of … they got it coming.”
Granted, they did have it coming, if anyone can, which is one of the things that makes World War II stories so seductive: They offer at least the illusion of moral clarity that many messy modern conflicts lack. (No wonder the World War II content keeps coming.) How bad can you feel about bombing Nazis, especially if a certified military legend stirringly excuses the civilian casualties that give his fellow pilot pause? Masters of the Air mostly gestures at these complexities rather than really reckoning with them. On a recent rewatch, I found The Pacific more compelling than Band of Brothers because of its focused character development, the expansiveness of its story, and the brutal honesty of its tone. The latest series lacks a lot of that, which slots it into third place behind its precursors.
It’s not a distant third, though, and all three series have evoked the same two powerful feelings in me. The first is astonishment that horrors and heroics occurred on this scale within at least a few living memories. Masters of the Air reminds us at times that modern warfare doesn’t work this way: In a world of smart bombs, a Norden bombsight seems primitive, and in an era of GPS tracking and satellite surveillance, it’s jarring to discover how thick the fog of war was when planes were in the air. In most respects, though, the series exposes how recently this conflagration was extinguished, in the grand scheme of things. World War II was my Roman Empire before I became a dad, but no matter how many books I read, movies or shows I watch, or games I play, the scope of the conflict boggles my mind. Even after three limited series, Spielberg, Hanks, and Goetzman have hardly scratched the surface of the American military’s involvement in the war, let alone the other Allies’. As a submarine obsessive, I suggest: Do the Navy next. (Like Greyhound, but better.)
For me, though, the most pressing question posed by these series is an unanswerable one: Could I have done that? Had I been born when my grandmother was—which, well, I’m not sure how that could have happened, but hey, it’s a hypothetical—it might’ve been me in those foxholes or on those beaches or planes. (Hell, it might’ve been me today, had I been born elsewhere in the world.) Did that generation get dubbed “The Greatest” just because it happened to be on watch when the world went up in flames? Would we respond the same way today?
That so many millions served—not just the bravest and brightest, but anyone whose number was called—suggests that you or I could have done that duty, but we’ll never know. To be clear, I’m relieved that I haven’t had to find out, considering I’ve been known to white-knuckle when the turbulence ticks past the point of turning on the “Fasten seatbelt” sign. These folks fought for a world where we’d never need to demonstrate courage under fire, but there’s no way to watch without wondering what we’d have done. It’s the kind of question that keeps you up after the credits roll, which is probably the point.
Earlier this week, a 74-year-old New Hampshire Republican primary voter went semi-viral for expressing what one would hope is a pretty popular sentiment: “My father fought in World War II to defeat fascism, and I want it to remain defeated.” Masters of the Air doesn’t draw explicit parallels between 1944 and 2024, but it’s hard to watch it today and not think that way. A fictional warrior named Galadriel once said, “Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it.” Now that World War II has almost reached that point, maybe Masters of the Air is the closest we can come to real recall. We could do way worse.