The Steven Spielberg-Tom Hanks World War II television universe began on HBO in 2001 — Sept. 9, 2001, if you can believe it — with Band of Brothers, a visceral and visually striking exploration of the heavy toll war takes on those who fight in it, as told through the experiences of a team of paratroopers. In 2010, about a year into Barack Obama's first presidential term, came its spiritual successor, HBO's The Pacific, similarly visceral and visually striking, but this time focused on the experiences of the Marines. And now here we are in 2024, facing an election year and on the precipice of another collaboration between Spielberg and Hanks: Apple TV+'s Masters of the Air, which follows the Air Force unit of the 100th Bomb Group. At the risk of turning this review of a show that is inherently a history lesson into another history lesson, it feels necessary to contextualize these works within the time periods they premiere. The question worth asking is how in tune Masters of the Air actually is with America's present.
If Masters of the Air has a take on war that isn't quite as fresh as its predecessors', it at least does a solid job treading familiar territory. We're introduced to the show's central duo — every war show needs one — right away: Major Gale Cleven (Austin Butler) and Major John Egan (Callum Turner). The deep-voiced and serious Cleven is softened by the loose and rakish Egan; Egan, who goes by Bucky, even gave Cleven his nickname ("Buck") back when they first met, a story they regale a pair of women with as they have a last hurrah before shipping out. They're intense about each other in ways only men who go to war together can be, and it's barely five minutes into Episode 1 (there are nine in total) before Cleven delivers the series' inaugural "Don't you die on me." (The first of many.) It's not reinventing the wheel, but it's following a formula that works.
Cleven and Egan lead a squadron known as the "Bloody Hundredth," which is stationed in England with the goal of staging bomb raids over Nazi Germany. These raids are depicted with harrowing frequency; the series, which reportedly had a budget of well over $200 million dollars, depicts the flight scenes as punishingly, devastatingly violent. Masters clearly took care to make the Top Gun: Maverick-esque visuals look as real as possible, despite relying more on CGI and less on the practical effects that gave Maverick its textured look. Masters is an epic that looks like an epic, brought to life by a stacked roster of directors that includes Cary Joji Fukunaga, Dee Rees, and Tim Van Patten. It's peak dad TV, with aircrafts zipping through the skies and men chattering about dames behind thick oxygen masks. The aerial scenes unfold at such a thrilling clip that even when episodes start to blend together, a well-placed sequence inside a B-15 can easily bring you right back into the story. This is the kind of show that somehow makes watching Jude Law's son (Raff Law, who plays Sergeant Ken Lemmons, a mechanic) fix an issue with an engine feel exciting. Planes are shown falling apart in real time, forcing the men to make impossible decisions and bear witness to striking images that haunt them for the remainder of the series. The Bloody Hundredth was named for its high body count, and tragedy certainly surrounds them at every turn. Their friends die, others go missing, and many get detained in prisoner-of-war camps. Sacrifices pile up, and there's nothing to be done but keep marching forward. War, Masters never wants us to forget, is hell.
What helps give those hard-to-watch moments their edge is how much time Masters spends getting to know the men before really putting them through the worst of it. Early episodes show them sitting around reading, eating, and getting into ill-advised mischief at bars. Attention to the characters' humanity has always been the most interesting part of the Spielberg-Hanks projects; what made Damien Lewis' Dick Winters such an endearing protagonist in Band of Brothers was how normal a guy he was. The consistent reminder that the Air Force was full of ordinary people, many of whom had never even been on a plane before shipping out, makes the tragedy of the situation hit harder.
By design, war shows are busy affairs, but Masters of the Air might just be the busiest of them all. With a sprawling ensemble that also includes Barry Keoghan, Anthony Boyle, Nate Mann, and very many more (it's not not funny that the cast is made up of mostly British and Irish actors doing their best regional American accents), Masters has so many guys running around that keeping track of them all becomes a challenge in itself, especially in the later episodes, when the action really picks up. Every performance is strong, and there are glimpses at interesting characters, but it's difficult for anyone in the supporting cast to really stand out (though an always excellent Keoghan makes a valiant effort with his limited screen time, despite the wavering Brooklyn brogue they have him doing) when there are so many people crammed into each hour.
Masters shines brightest when it narrows its focus to the relationship between Cleven and Egan, which effectively anchors the series and gives Butler and Turner, great separately and better together, plenty to work with. Butler fits right in as a man who wears the cost of war on his permanently furrowed brow, while Turner elegantly maps Egan's transition from carefree smartass into world-weary soldier. They're adrift when they're separated, and Cleven keeps Egan going when no one else can. They both know how likely it is that one or both of them could die out there that at some point it becomes useless to keep pointing out, but that possibility isn't enough to stop them from making plans for the future. Someone has to be best man at Cleven's wedding, after all.
It's tough, however, not to feel cynical about Masters of the Air's fundamentally jingoistic perspective, especially now, as every day the United States' involvement in the crisis in Gaza calls to mind the U.S. invasion of Iraq. As history repeats itself, it undermines Masters' view that defeating the Nazis was the end of the world's problems. As honest as Masters tries to be about the horrors the men experienced, especially those who lived to tell the tale, this series still sees the American flag solely as a symbol of peace and freedom and is unwilling to spent too much time with any other perspective. Look no further than the introduction of the Tuskegee Airmen, saved for the penultimate episode, which is far too brief (and drastically underuses Ncuti Gatwa), for an example of its somewhat flat perspective. Masters positions them largely as a perfunctory reminder that brotherhood only extends so far for white soldiers, that even heroes can be racist. (None of the main characters, of course.)
It's not surprising to see Masters conclude on a triumphant note, but you can't help wishing for some more nuance as it sends the airmen back to everyday life. Band of Brothers did this well, retaining its reverence for the men of Easy Company while allowing them to feel unmoored about the prospect of returning to society after all they've seen and done. More recently, Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer stands as a piece of World War II-era media that nimbly traces how the invention of the atomic bomb ushered in our current era, and forces us to consider the "genius" of the man behind it. Just how misunderstood Oppenheimer's intentions have been by some audiences points to how rare it is to see an American war story without a neat sheen. Masters of the Air doesn't allow for any such interpretations.
It's not that the story of the 100th Bomb Group isn't worth telling, or that the stories of these men should be lost to time. In fact, Masters of the Air is very watchable, a gorgeously cinematic experience even when the narrative grows especially distressing. Still, it's worth interrogating the use of a glossy, Spielbergian ending on a series like this.
Premieres: Friday, Jan. 26 with two episodes on Apple TV+, followed by a new episode each Friday
Who's in it: Austin Butler, Callum Turner, Barry Keoghan, Anthony Boyle, Nate Mann
Who's behind it: Developed by John Orloff (Band of Brothers); executive producers Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and Gary Goetzman
For fans of: Band of Brothers, The Pacific, dad TV
How many episodes we watched: 9 of 9