‘Masters of the Air’ Was a Worthy Expansion of the ‘Band of Brothers’ Cinematic Universe


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In the leadup to its release, Masters of the Air was described by the Guardian as an extension of the “Band of Brothers Universe,” which is sometimes referred to more simply as “World War II,” which is itself just a subplot of the IP known as “human history.” Given that this is where I live and spend most of my time, it makes sense that I’m a big fan of this franchise. Men of my generation—born at the end of history, a time of plentiful movie and television options but no wars that anyone feels good about—have learned from Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg that war isn’t just something that happened to our grandfathers, Audie Murphy or John Wayne. It also happened to the guy from Big.

The BoBU really began with 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, in which we witnessed the unspeakable horrors of D-Day through stock characters like The Italian Guy from Brooklyn, The Irish Guy from Brooklyn, The Religious Hayseed Who’s a Crack Shot, The Coward, The Medic, The Hardass Sergeant, and The Saintly Schoolteacher (Hanks.) However, the World War II universe was too big for just the silver screen, and in 2001, at the dawn of the prestige-TV bubble, it found its way to HBO with the Spielberg/Hanks-produced Band of Brothers, a masterpiece of a miniseries which followed a group of U.S. paratroopers from basic training through the Allied invasion of Europe. The boys of Easy Company—led by the stoic and resolute Captain Winters (Damien Lewis) and the sardonic and rakish Captain Nixon (Ron Livingston)— became our guys. We shared in their camaraderie, suffering and triumphs; if they all seemed like slightly more realistic, fleshed-out characters than what Private Ryan offered, it was because they were all based on real guys who talked to you at the beginning of each episode.

Then in 2010 came the follow-up, The Pacific. For those who felt the European theater wasn’t harrowing or brutal enough, here was a series about the Marines’ island-hopping war against the Japanese, which made fighting the Nazis seem like a semester abroad in France. Now, in the streaming era, the trilogy is complete, with Masters of the Air, which shows us the dawn of aerial bombardment, as experienced by handsome guys in unbelievably cool jackets who fought the Luftwaffe at 30,000 feet to bomb Germany to cinders.

Masters of the Air didn’t depart too much from the Band of Brothers format, beginning with its main characters, Austin Butler’s Maj. “Buck” Cleven and Callum Turner’s Maj. ‘Bucky’ Egan, who gave us essentially the same “Square Guy” (doesn’t drink or cheat on his best girl back home)” versus “Cool Guy” (alcoholic who dogs around constantly) dynamic as Winters and Nixon. Cleven and Egan lead an air wing of flying fortresses crewed and piloted by a cast of young actors who all suffer, to varying degrees and to the detriment of historical verisimilitude, from smartphone face, the telltale look of men from a time when people didn’t smoke 50 unfiltered cigarettes a day.

Just below Butler and Turner in the cool-guy chain of command is Group Navigator Crosby, played by Anthony Boyle, who provides the series’ voice-over narration and acts as a kind of audience surrogate. These are the guys you, the viewer, imagine putting your life in the hands of. You know it’s going to be hard, nearly impossible, but they’re going to get you through it. Unless, of course you’re Barry Keoghan and you have to go film Saltburn, which means your character is definitely not making it home.

The problem this particular theater of combat presents from a television standpoint is two-fold. First, when flying these planes, all the actor’s faces are obscured by oxygen masks, which makes it a little difficult to figure out who just died. The second is that by now, dropping bombs on people has become a staple of the American way of war that developed some unsavory and less than valorous connotations as the American History Extended Universe evolved. Masters of the Air solves this problem by showing us that—even if, today, it’s never been more bloodless or risk-free to kill people with airplanes—during World War II, your chances of landing one of these flying fortresses safely after taking off and doing one these bombing raids made Russian roulette look like a good bet. That, and the show doesn’t spend too much time pondering the morality of something like Dresden.

The depictions of aerial combat are intense and terrifying, but somewhat repetitive—in each instance, the bombers fly in tight formation until they hit a wall of flak, those who make through that fog of exploding metal are picked apart by Messerschmitts, and only a few are able to actually drop their bombs on target. That being said, I’d like to give a special shout-out to the “ball turret gunners” of the Flying Fortresses, whose job—being locked into a giant glass basketball on the bottom of an airplane in negative-30-degree temperatures, while said plane is being riddled with .50-caliber bullets and also on fire—now occupies a new “worst nightmare possible” slot in my mind.

The unbelievably high rate of attrition for pilots and their crews becomes both a major plotline and something the writers of the show have to deal with. In the second half of the series, after one particularly disastrous bombing raid sees every single one of our boys shot down over Germany, the show changes tracks in a number of ways. First we’re allowed to think our number one boy Buck Cleven died in combat for an episode. Then our guys Buck and Bucky find themselves reunited in a Stalag—coincidentally, the same one Steve McQueen’s character breaks out of in The Great Escape, another fictionalized but fact-based WWII story. Then, outside of German captivity, we’re introduced to Maj. Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal (Nate Mann), a new ace pilot from—you guessed it—da mean streets of Brooklyn. There’s also a Spy Who Loved Me plotline featuring Crosby canoodling with a quirked-up OSS agent (Bel Powley), and then the second-to-last episode introduces another entirely new crop of handsome, cool guys—the Tuskegee Airmen, Black pilots who contributed to the war effort on behalf of an officially racist, segregated US military, and found themselves in many respects more free in occupied Europe than they were back home, a story worthy of its own AppleTV series that feels a bit tacked-on here.

For America, World War II remains the most important historical crucible—the origin story of our belief in ourselves as the rightful inheritors of the world. For guys of my generation, it’s also how we judge ourselves as men. Are we as tough or good as our grandfathers? Most people would say Probably not. However, there’s a certain self-effacing narcissism in this kind of generational rubbernecking; when faced with the ultimate trade and its ultimate practice, we all think No thanks, but as Mark Ames suggested on a recent episode of his podcast The War Nerd, deeper down, we’d all like to imagine that we’re the protagonists of reality, that we’d be the one to not only survive combat but maybe gain some cynical, hard-earned and bittersweet life experience and then go on to write Catch-22. After all, behind every fear lies a certain secret wish. In this case, it’s a desire to look good, wear cool jackets, have fun with your friends, get laid, and then die in some spectacular, unimaginable way. Masters of the Air gratified this fantasy exactly as we’ve come to expect.

Originally Appeared on GQ