Twenty-three years ago, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg began their epic project of adapting stories from World War II with Band of Brothers, which became a seminal HBO miniseries in part for its expensive, cinematic look—it’s an early step in the prestige TV era—and for its large ensemble cast which included such future stars as Ron Livington, Damian Lewis, Michael Fassbender, Andrew Scott, Michael Cudlitz, Neal McDonough, Dominic Cooper, Tom Hardy, James McAvoy, and Simon Pegg. Fourteen years ago, a spiritual sequel followed with The Pacific, which focuses on soldiers in the Pacific theater of the war. Now, the series is a trilogy with Masters of the Air, which follows aviators in World War II.
Based primarily on Donald Miller’s book of the same name, Masters of the Air centers on the 100th Bomb Group of the US Army Air Forces. Known as the “Bloody Hundredth”, these aviators flew B-17 bombers on incredibly dangerous daytime air raids over Nazi Germany and suffered massive losses—less than one quarter of men assigned to the Bloody Hundredth made it back home alive. It’s a story ripe for adaptation, especially now that technology allows for the accurate recreation of some of the 100th’s most famous missions, but something is lost in translation along the way. There is no shortage of material—besides Miller’s tome, several veterans wrote memoirs—and plenty of colorful characters, but somehow, Masters of the Air is the most staid and boring possible version of itself.
Told over nine episodes, Masters follows four primary aviators: Gale “Buck” Cleven (Austin Butler), John “Bucky” Egan (Callum Turner), Harry Crosby (Anthony Boyle), and Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal (Nate Mann). There are plenty of others who come and go, demonstrating the catastrophic results achieved by the 100th, but these are the four who anchor the story over the course of the war. Anthony Boyle provides narration as Harry, who wrote a memoir titled A Wing and a Prayer, which is one of the most well-known memoirs about the Bloody Hundredth. It is also Harry Crosby who becomes the stand-out character of the series.
As much as “the two Buckys” are touted as the protagonists of the series—in no small part because Butler and Turner were tipped to become big stars and Butler, indeed, blew up after Masters completed filming in 2021—Harry Crosby is the only character with anything approaching an actual arc. Butler’s movie star charm bleeds through at times as Buck Cleven, but the man described in Miller’s book as “extravagantly alive” is here rendered as a one-note killjoy, leaving Butler very little to do except look stalwart and determined. At his best, Buck comes across as a hardass who wills his men to survive their terrible missions, but most of the time, he’s just a walking scowl.
Bucky Egan, similarly, starts at a ten and stays there. Turner brings a boyish vulnerability to Bucky’s drinking and womanizing and fighting, but he rarely gets to turn his emotional meter down, which turns Bucky into a cartoonish figure. Nate Mann also does what he can with Rosie Rosenthal, but the man openly admits he doesn’t believe in dwelling on the terrible things they see happen in the sky—multiple aviators have their co-pilots killed right next to them mid-flight. Rosie is a tough nut who is not going to crack and that probably made for great leadership in such a dark time, but as a story to watch, it doesn’t really work.
It feels strange to criticize Masters of the Air because what it is documenting is important history, but some things exist in the right medium the first time. There is no shortage of writing about the Bloody Hundredth, and as an effort to turn their story into narrative drama, Masters of the Air doesn’t deliver. At its best, it gives a sense of those daytime air raids and everything the aviators risked completing targeted bombing strikes (as opposed to carpet bombing at night, like the British). But as a human drama, it is curiously inert. These are young men in the prime of their lives living every day as if it might be their last—because it might actually BE their last—why is it so flat and unmoving?
Is it the preponderance of Brits doing terrible American accents? Austin Butler’s lingering Elvis voice rapidly fades into the background among the field of questionable accents, and to his credit, as static as Buck Cleven is as a character, Butler disappears into the role. Is it a simple function of the Bloody Hundredth’s reality? So many people come and go so quickly, it becomes impossible to invest in new characters. Even the main characters will disappear for an episode or two at a time, interrupting their (negligible) narrative arcs, adding to the difficulty in caring for these characters. Only Harry Crosby serves as a focal point from first to last, and Boyle does a fantastic job portraying him from wide-eyed lieutenant to hardened major. The growth and change in Harry are palpable.
Another problem, though, is the handling of the Tuskegee Airmen. Frankly, they deserve their own $200 million miniseries, but here they are shoved into the last two episodes, characters who come in so late and contribute so little it’s impossible to remember their names. It is, frankly, an embarrassing treatment of such historically important people, to be tacked on as mere footnotes in Buck Cleven and Bucky Egan’s story.
Masters of the Air looks fancy as hell, and the aerial battle scenes are stunning—not as physically visceral as Top Gun: Maverick, but emotionally visceral upon seeing the terrible ways these aviators could die mid-air. As a recreation of this unique field of battle in World War II, it succeeds. But as a story, Masters of the Air is, well, airless. There are some good performances—besides Butler and Boyle, Callum Turner has a stand-out episode—but they’re so one-note it’s hard to invest beyond merely noticing good acting.
Given the talent on screen and behind the camera—episodes are directed by Cary Joji Fukanaga, Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, Dee Rees and Tim Van Patten—Masters of the Air is a huge misfire. By the end, it starts to feel like a waste of everyone’s time, especially for the actors who keep repeating the same emotional beats over and over. At this point, Hanks and Spielberg are taking it for granted that we all have a middle-aged father’s interest in World War II.
Masters of the Air streams new episodes every Friday on Apple TV+.