Does Apple TV+’s WWII Series Soar to ‘Band of Brothers’s Heights — or Crash and Burn?

Masters of the Air finally soars onto Apple TV+ this week, taking viewers on a harrowing journey through the skies with real-life Air Force officers during World War II. We’ll get to watch rising stars like Austin Butler and Barry Keoghan don cool jackets to battle Nazis in the clouds over Europe, learn about the historic acts of heroism that won World War II, and continue on the television saga that started with Band of Brothers over twenty years ago. But is the new World War II drama made of the same outstanding stuff that made Band of Brothers such a phenomenon for HBO? Or is it a series that strains under the weight of expectations, only to narratively crash and burn?

Masters of the Air follows 2001’s massively lauded Band of Brothers and 2010’s critically-acclaimed, but under-watched, The Pacific as the third series about the lives of real American soldiers on the front lines of World War II produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. This new Apple TV+ series is based primarily on Donald L. Miller’s Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany, which some assists from real-life World War II veteran Harry Crosby’s 1993 memoir, A Wing and a Prayer. Like its predecessor series, Masters of the Air features a massive ensemble cast of rising stars, and visceral battle sequences. However Masters of the Air lacks the elegant, understated, desolating grace of the past two shows. It feels more like an action movie or a propaganda at times. This could be because of the plain fact that aerial combat lends itself to more bombastic storytelling than the literally more grounded experiences of ground troops. For good or ill, even Masters of the Air‘s most devastating moments feel more like popcorn fare than Band of Brothers ever did.

Austin Butler and Callum Turner in 'Masters of the Air'
Photo: Apple TV+

Masters of the Air follows the men of the Air Force’s 100th Bomb Group from 1943 through 1945. The unit would eventually earn the macabre nickname, “Bloody Hundredth,” because of its astonishing numbers of combat losses. Early episodes of Masters of the Air highlight the horror of these young men, fresh from the States with visions of heroism, encountering the cruel reality of the Nazi’s domination of the skies above Europe. Clouds become mine fields of flak, the Luftwaffe descend from the heavens to shoot boys’ faces off, and the few surviving planes struggle to land back in England.

Leading the first wave of young Air Force officers are best friends Major Gale “Buck” Cleven (Austin Butler) and Major John “Bucky” Egan (Callum Turner). Masters of the Air opens with a happily hazy night out for the BBFs and wannabe best girls that explains their ludicrously similar nicknames*. The two are natural leaders on the warfront, inspiring their crews with their unbridled confidence while pulling off wild acts of heroism in the face of failure.

*I kept them clear by remembering that Austin Butler’s stoic, always sober, Buck was less of a f-ck up than the cocky, perpetually drunk Bucky. “Buck” just feels more mature than “Bucky” to me!

Anthony Boyle as Crosby in 'Masters of the Air'
Photo: Apple TV+

However, like Band of Brothers, Masters of the Air has a vast ensemble of characters to follow over its nine episode run. The series is narrated by airsick newbie-turned-lead navigator Major Harry Crosby (Anthony Boyle). Buck and Bucky might arrive on the scene cooly confident in their prowess, but through Harry’s arc, we see how war hardens an idealistic young man into a cynical survivor, haunted more by survivor’s guilt than PTSD.

As (true to history) circumstances pull Buck and Bucky and Crosby away from the hot action, the series shifts focus to Major Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal (Nate Mann), a later arrival to the Bloody Hundreth who soon establishes himself as its greatest leader through his miraculous flying. Masters of the Air looks most closely at the mental health struggles afflicting the survivors of World War II through Rosie’s storyline, as well as the additional emotional toll fighting Nazis took on Jewish American servicemen.

Although Masters of the Air has prominently featured actors like Ncuti Gatwa, Branden Cook, and Josiah Cross as members of the illustrious Tuskegee Airmen in trailers, the show offers too little, too late about the Black heroes of World War II. The show, of course, is focused on an all-white bomber group, but the Tuskegee pilots’ inclusion feels even more like Apple TV+ is checking off a diversity quote checklist because it’s shoehorned in so late in the series’ run. Nevertheless, Cook, Gatwa, and Cross all do great work with the small material they’re given.

Ncuti Gatwa in 'Masters of the Air'
Photo: Apple TV+

Masters of the Air’s two biggest boons are its thrilling action sequences, rife with moments of terror and triumph, and its super talented cast. War buffs will likely love the intense aerial combat sequences shot mostly by episode directors Cary Joji Fukunaga and Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck. Austin Butler fans will similarly squeal over the shots of the Oscar-nominee waltzing with the unit’s adopted dog, but the real revelations in the show are undoubtedly Turner, Boyle and Mann. Anthony Boyle continues to impress after an astounding turn in HBO’s The Plot Against America while newcomer Nate Mann has the charisma of an old-timey movie star as Robert Rosenthal. Callum Turner, who has popped up in everything from Emma to the Fantastic Beasts flicks to the recent dad-bait movie The Boys in the Boat, makes the strongest case, though, for mega-stardom. His Bucky Egan is a complex jumble of humor, self-loathing, courage, and pain.

That all being said, Masters of the Air‘s narrative flow is uneven. It tries too hard to cram in too many side stories that don’t always resolve themselves effectively. The storytelling is sometimes shallow, veering into the realm of jingoistic Air Force propaganda.

Masters of the Air is a thrilling, entertaining watch that lacks the depth of its HBO-produced predecessors. Check it out for the gripping battle sequences in the air and the mesmerizing performances of its stars, but don’t expect a show quite on the level of the great Band of Brothers. Masters of the Air will get your adrenaline going, but as prestige TV, pale imitation of its predecessors, leaning more on VFX than virtuosic writing.


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