Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg are no strangers to the war drama genre. Following Saving Private Ryan, the duo reunited – this time as executive producers – for Band of Brothers, widely regarded as one of the greatest TV shows ever made, then set their sights on another theater of war with miniseries The Pacific. Now, the duo have once again returned as executive producers on Masters of the Air, another epic-in-the-making that adapts the true-life story of the 100th Bomb Group.
From the very first scene of the series' double episode premiere, the show exudes suave, old-school cool. We're introduced first to Austin Butler's Major Gale Cleven and Callum Turner's Major John Egan as they bid farewell to their sweethearts. The threat feels far away in that dim, warm bar: but before the opening credits have even rolled, we're thrown into our first aerial battle, and it's a visceral, shockingly fast-paced scene, all blood and bullets. Any doubt that Masters of the Air wouldn't recapture the harrowing naturalism of Band of Brothers is immediately dispelled.
Those opening minutes are essentially the show's mission statement: we're welcomed into the regular life of the 100th, before being brutally reminded that any one of these men could be struck from the story in seconds, whether at the mercy of a stalled engine or a stray bullet. Welcome to the war.
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At the heart of both Band of Brothers and The Pacific were the men, and Masters of the Air is no different. In these opening two episodes, we lack a deep sense of the 100th as a whole, but we are introduced to a very compelling set of characters to follow: Butler's Cleven, Turner's Egan, Anthony Boyle's Harry Crosby, and Barry Keoghan's Curtis Biddick.
Crosby is our retrospective narrator, and Boyle is endlessly likable as the nervy, naive navigator who accidentally directs his pilot to the coastline of occupied France, in an endearing if near-fatal mistake (Crosby is, unfortunately, afflicted with severe air-sickness). Then there's Keoghan's lively Biddick, who brawls in the street with RAF men and is the subject of a moving sequence that ends with a daring emergency landing.
Butler has a quiet magnetism as Cleven, with the actor's Old Hollywood charm lending the Major a steadying, comforting presence. It's Turner, though, who steals the show as Egan – he's effortlessly charismatic, whether he's getting drunk to mourn heavy losses or joyfully grabbing the microphone to sing at an evening shindig.
As for the planes the men spend so much of their time in, the machines oscillate between majestic as they line the runway for take-off and shuddering metal death traps when they're in the air: broken glass in the freezing temperatures of high-altitude or a jammed turret both cause gruesome injury. There are many ways to die above the clouds.
It would be tempting for this show to indulge in flashy spectacle for spectacle's sake, but the opening two episodes wisely focus on the humans flying the planes during the action, and the frenetic, terrifying, and confusing experience of fast-paced aerial battle. James Bond helmer Cary Joji Fukunaga directs both episodes, so it should be no surprise that the action is cinematic, showcasing that reported $250 million budget.
Each mission plays out in the stark daylight, too; as the RAF men sneeringly point out to our 100th protagonists, the Americans undertake precision bombing missions by day, while the British fly by night. It certainly heightens the intensity when the anti-aircraft fire kicks in immediately in crackling booms; even more ominous is when it falls silent, heralding the imminent arrival of enemy planes.
Since these missions are mostly limited to dodging flak and those quick fly-bys from the enemy, we haven't yet seen an extended set piece between battling planes. But, judging by the scale of what we have seen so far, future dogfights are bound to be breathtakingly intense when they inevitably arrive.
Masters of the Air easily establishes itself as prestige television in its debut. There is a sense of more to come, though, with the foundation laid for gut-punching emotion, more fierce action, and the growth of that camaraderie among the 100th.
If Masters of the Air can keep up this level of quality (and there's absolutely no reason to believe it can't), then it will be a worthy companion to Band of Brothers, and another shining achievement for Hanks and Spielberg – surely, at this point, masters of the war drama.
The first two episodes of Masters of the Air release this January 26, with remaining episodes to follow weekly. You can fill out your watchlist with our guide to the best Apple TV shows.