YOUR WEEKLY BINGE: Masters of the Air

Every Memorial Day, HBO replays their seminal series, Band of Brothers, and every year, I find myself drawn in again to perhaps the most definitive narrative series about World War II. Band of Brothers, based on historian Stephen Ambrose’s book, dramatizes the battles of “Easy” Company, a parachute regiment of the 101st Army Airborne Division, one that faced some of the most brutal conditions and conflicts in Europe and came home as one of the most decorated. A companion series, The Pacific, also on HBO, focused on the Marine Corps’ action in the Pacific Theater of Operations. Both series were created and executive produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, who worked together on what many consider the seminal film about World War II, Saving Private Ryan.

It is clear that Spielberg and Hanks are dedicated to telling the stories of the Greatest Generation, of those who fought—and died—during what many call the last great war, and they will continue their efforts as long as they are able, and as long as there are still stories to tell. Tragically, there never seems to be a dearth of stories from World War II, and Hanks and Spielberg have brought us yet another monumental series dedicated to the generation that saved the world from tyranny and fascism, but this time it’s not about battles fought on the ground, it’s about ones fought in the air.

Masters of the Air (2024), on AppleTV+, is a nine-part series that follows the members of the 100th Bomb Group, the men who flew the B-17 Flying Fortresses in World War II, whose daring daytime flights always came under heavy fire, from the ground and the air, as they aimed to cripple the Nazi war machine by bombing key strategic sites. The B-17s were critical in the Allied victory over Germany, but their missions were extremely dangerous and Masters of the Air tells the stories of the men who were brave enough to fly, again and again, knowing they could be shot down or blown out of the air at any moment.

Much like Band of Brothers and The Pacific, Masters of the Air is exceptionally well-produced and features an ensemble cast of stellar actors, featuring multiple storylines and intense action. The key difference with Masters of the Air is most of the action takes place in the skies, so there is a much bigger reliance on technology and CGI, but, I promise you, you won’t notice at all. The scenes in the air during battle are breathtaking and knuckle-whitening, it’s impossible to believe that human beings went through this—and did it so bravely and valiantly.

The problem with depicting battles in the air is it’s hard to not get carried away with over-dramatizing it, as we’ve seen in some of the films that have depicted these exploits, films like Memphis Belle, Red Tails and the 1996 series The Tuskegee Airmen. What sets Masters of the Air apart is the breadth of the story it tells, not focused simply on the time inside the fuselage, but expanding the scope of the narrative to following the airmen on the ground as well. What happens when they completed a mission but none of their buddies do? What happens when they get shot down over enemy territory? What happens if they get captured? What happens if they don’t?

So, while the bulk of the action in Masters of the Air obviously takes place, well, in the air—and these sequences are some of the most eye-popping you will see—the character development and storytelling happens on the ground, and it is in that expansion where the series really finds its footing and earns its comparisons to Band of Brothers and The Pacific. Despite how many characters we need to follow, each one is fleshed out and fully realized, and the masterful screenplay and direction makes sure that we are fully engaged with each story while never losing sight of the big picture.

The cast is exceptional, no surprise there, especially Anthony Boyle, Callum Turner and Nate Mann. Boyle plays Lt. Harry Crosby, a navigator who also serves as a voiceover narrator, a trope that I love, also borrowed from Band of Brothers and The Pacific. So many actors do excellent work, the only miscasting I felt was that of Austin Butler as Major Bale ‘Buck’ Cleven, one of the three main characters. While Butler is fine, he just can’t keep up with the other actors, overly playing into his sheepishness and too-cool-for-school demeanor. It was slightly distracting, at least for me.

But that truly is the only less-than-stellar thing to say about this series that is exceptional, from top to bottom. Certainly, if you are a history buff or you loved Band of Brothers or The Pacific or Saving Private Ryan, there’s no way you can miss Masters of the Air. And, for those of you who maybe found those to be too intense, graphic and hard to watch, you will find Masters of the Air, while still quite honest about the brutality of war and by no means shying away from the horrors of war, is not nearly as intense a watch and might be a bit more tolerable for those with weaker stomachs.

Overall, Masters of the Air reminds us, yet again, of the sacrifices and the courage shown by the Greatest Generation, and when you combine such rich history with the genius creators that want to keep their stories alive, we are, as humans, both obligated to watch and grateful for the gift.