Pop Culture
Mar 19, 2024, 06:29AM

The Multiverse of World War II

Masters of Air, a miniseries "in the Band of Brothers universe," never brings its ensemble to life.

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I remember the first time I saw Band of Brothers (2001). I was 10 or 11, around the time that my cinephilia was really taking shape and my fanaticism for history had already crystalized. At that same age I was asking for a DVD-set of Ken Burn’s The Civil War (1990) for Christmas and begging my mom to take me to Gettysburg when she was planning a trip to visit her sister on the East Coast. Catching Band of Brothers on the History Channel was something different though. It wasn’t the Robert Clotworthy narrated doc, covered in archival grain filtered through my grandpa’s worn-out VHS, telling stories of bomber raids on Ploiești—it had vigor, grit; it was enthralling. This is what it really looked like. The 45-degree shutters, handheld mise-en-scene, and early digital color grading gave an authenticity to the images I was seeing on that old CRT TV.

It was real life being brought back to life. It didn’t look like a historic recreation, but real history on screen. It was an easy show to root for too—one of the principal characters, Donald Malarkey, was a well-known local veteran. He was never wounded in the war, but did fall down the stairs at my grade school before making an appearance at an assembly. It was the first time I thought I saw someone die (I think he lived another decade after this), I think when we were shuffled back to our classrooms I drew a picture of a sailboat. But I digress.

There was a magic to Band of Brothers. I wouldn’t call it lightning in a bottle, although it has never been captured again, and with age the melodramatic flairs, the more conventional motions of its cameras, and fake forests have impressed less and less. However, there’s one key element to Band of Brothers that neither its imitators nor its sister series have recreated for obvious reasons: the testimonials. The juxtaposition of the real voices (whose identities, powerfully, are not revealed until the end of the series) with the cinematic recreations of some of the most harrowing moments of their lives gives a potency to the show’s visceral images—they look like any old people, and this is the unimaginable reality that haunts them.

I’ve only ever seen a similar effect in Reds (1981), the Warren Beatty-starring/directed epic about (another notable Oregonian) John Reed, the communist journalist who covered the Russian Revolution on the ground (his book Ten Days That Shook the World, was given as the subtitle for the international release of Sergei Eisenstein and Grigori Aleksandrov’s masterpiece made for the 10th anniversary of the Revolution, October). Yet Reds suffers in its authenticity by way of its grandiosity, and while Vittorio Storaro’s stunning ability to capture the many hues of evening light and soar a camera across a landscape does add a sumptuousness to Beatty’s strangely, surprisingly dry and (less strangely) overindulgent historical feast, it doesn’t add any lively legitimacy to the interspersed interviews with the people who knew the film’s real subjects, it just further distances it—there’s real life and there’s myth. That’s the key to Band of Brothers: its story is borderline mythological, but its form is immediate.

Masters of the Air (2024) is the latest entry into the Band of Brothers universe,” following the mostly forgotten second attempt at WWII anthology by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Television and the Tom Hanks/Gary Goetzman studio Playtone, The Pacific (2010), which, if I remember correctly, is the reason my parents got (and still have yet to get off their cable subscription) HBO. If The Pacific tried to at least visually adhere to the frantic, bleach-bypassed look Spielberg and Janusz Kamiński pioneered on Saving Private Ryan (1997), even while stumbling to splotch together its tripartite story cobbled together from various source materials, then Masters of the Air throws any aesthetic legacy (which, to this day, is a massive part of what makes Band of Brothers stand out so much in the heap of dad cinema about the Second World War) out the side of a plane, without a parachute, and deep inside enemy territory.

There’s plenty of texture for what I’d imagine the show's target audience is: people’s uncles who’ve read multiple books about Stalingrad and rewatch Das Boot (1981) at least annually (I won’t exclude myself from this characterization). Early on especially, Masters of the Air revels in the details of B-17 combat: operational codes, the military dialect spoken between crews, flight formations, the secrecy of the Norden bombsight, evacuation procedures. The fetishism for detail only lasts so long, and by the end of Cary Joji Fukunaga’s run directing the first four parts, the show almost entirely abandons the elliptical format expected from a Band of Brothers follow-up and settles into a more conventional motion.

And unlike its predecessors, with their practically falling apart filmic images, there’s a digital gloss covering Masters of the Air—surprising, given that at least some of it was shot on 16mm, but I’d venture that the Sony VENICE was employed much more frequently on set. The sleek cinemagraphic tendency, heightened by a really bold, saturated color palette, makes the affair feel less guts and metal and more H&M ad. While one could accuse Band of Brothers of sometimes modeling its cast of (what feels like) every soon-to-be rising male star and character actor in Hollywood at the turn of the millennium in overtly spectacular, propagandistic images, Masters of the Air more often than not hero-worships with its camera, ogling at its stars Callum Turner and Austin Butler like they’re on The CW’s Riverdale. Sequences of our heroes filmed in heroic wides or exasperated closeups feel less attuned to the Robert-Capa-war-photography aspirations of the previous HBO efforts, and instead look more like Apple TV+ are making their show ready for TikTok fancams.

Despite using a similar formula of having both a lead two wartime friends as well as the larger ensemble under their command drive the series, Masters of the Air also largely fails to bring its ensemble to life and instead relies on returning to the core half a dozen or so regulars. Part of the problem is how fast these characters literally drop out of the story and for good historical reason—casualty rates for American bomber crews got as high as 89% during the war. The “Bloody Hundredth” Bomb Group at the center of the series was no exception. It becomes a narrative issue as the cast has to state rotating, disappearing, and reappearing, yet the only solution the show can seem to come up with is to desperately try to latch deeper on to its main protagonists.

Even the more interesting detours, like a late-series—and I mean the final two of the nine episodes (it’s also strange Masters of the Air didn’t go for the 10 ep. run like its predecessors)—addition of the Tuskegee Airman almost makes for a good secondary tale, as it sort of works as a juxtaposition with how black flyers are treated in the Army bureaucracy compared to their white counterparts. But in terms of pacing, it’s strange how much of a digression it is so late into a series that’s spiraled into linearly, as well as being overall too short a section to make its collision with the main characters feel anything more than shoehorned.

When the principal pair finally has their immortality questioned, it’s just as quickly dispatched as destiny finds them back together in a POW Stalag. It happened, and it’s unbelievable. Not in the way that seeing unbelievable feels, a feeling Band of Brothers rather carefully achieves by aiming for a verisimilitude in its images. The unbelievable in Masters of the Air feels unbelievable because it looks like what it is: a made-for-streaming series. It’s World War II content.


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