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‘Masters of the Air,’ war epic featuring Austin Butler, never quite finds its target

The fact that producers Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman complete their World War II trilogy with “Masters of the Air” on Apple TV+, after doing “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific” for HBO, is surely a sign of the streaming times. Yet HBO might have got the better of this deal, as this latest nine-part series – while well cast and undeniably sweeping in scale – seldom gets off the ground, dramatically speaking.

Indeed, despite flashy accessories, from aerial combat sequences to a cast populated by rising stars, the early episodes of this handsomely produced series unfold at a pace that feels like trench warfare. And while there are lump-in-the-throat moments before it’s over – given the subject matter how could there not be? – the characters don’t register as powerfully as they did in those earlier productions.

Ultimately, the goal is to humanize these young members of the 100th Bomb Group, who bravely and arduously seized control of the skies over Nazi Germany at great cost, flying missions in daylight so they can better identify targets – a strategy their British counterparts deride as stupid, if not downright suicidal.

Narrated by navigator Harry Crosby (Anthony Boyle), and adapted from the 2006 book “Masters of the Air” by Donald L. Miller, the story tackles the usual war-movie tropes with some new wrinkles, like bouts of airsickness and the frigid cold. Those go with more familiar flourishes, including the ways these crews try taking their minds off the danger that awaits them, usually through a combination of drink and women.

Nate Mann (right) in Apple's "Masters of the Air." - Apple TV+
Nate Mann (right) in Apple's "Masters of the Air." - Apple TV+

Leading the way are Majors Gale Cleven (“Elvis” star Austin Butler) and John Egan (Callum Turner, recently seen in another period piece, George Clooney’s “The Boys in the Boat”), who lead the raids and share a deep bond. The ensemble cast also includes actor-of-the-moment Barry Keoghan (“Saltburn”), Nate Mann, Rafferty Law, Josiah Cross, and Bel Powley, who recently starred in another (and better) World War II miniseries, “A Small Light.”

Like its predecessors, “Masters of the Air” presents an unflinching and occasionally grisly view of the horrors of war, including a haunting image of Jews on a train that passes captured pilots. The series also carves out time for the Tuskegee Airmen, allowing the unit of Black pilots – whose story was more directly chronicled in the movie “Red Tails” – to at least share in the spotlight.

Ultimately, though, this production simply isn’t as stirring as it should be, relying on composer Blake Neely’s muscular score to do an inordinate amount of the emotional heavy lifting.

To the extent that the streaming wars are as much a battle for attention as audience, Apple should garner plenty of the former just by landing this project, given the auspices, cast and material.

Yet seeing beyond that view from 25,000 feet, “Masters of the Air” doesn’t rise to the level one might have hoped or expected – offering a potent reminder of the sacrifices the Greatest Generation endured, to be sure, without really finding its target.

“Masters of the Air” premieres January 26 on Apple TV+. (Disclosure: Lowry’s wife works for a unit of Apple.)

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