Masters of the Air: The Best Limited Series in Years

Episode 1. Callum Turner and Austin Butler in "Masters of the Air," premiering January 26, 2024 on Apple TV+.

Masters of the Air is the best limited series in years as Playtone and Amblin turn their focus to the Allied airmen during World War II.

Following their efforts on Saving Private Ryan–a game-changer for ww2 movies in focusing on the human element–both Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks joined forces on both Band of Brothers and The Pacific. Ten years later, they are bringing us another WW2 story worthy of our attention: the fight in the air. The series follows airmen from the 100th Bombardment Group, starting in 1943 and going through the end of the war in 1945. It captures our attention from the opening frame all the way through the ending post-script. Blake Neely’s score accompanies the series, never getting too show and knows when to allow the series to breathe.

Steven Spielberg comments in the film’s production notes:

“I think it’s really important that we create a library where young people can understand what it took to keep our country free. That’s why I keep going back to this subject. World War II was a crossroads and it needs not to be in a rearview mirror. We need to carry the sacrifice and contributions of that generation through our generation and into future generations.”

Similarly, Tom Hanks:

“We keep going back to examining this time cinematically because on December 8, 1941 a huge portion of the populace said, ‘Sign me up. Whatever you need. I’m going to take part in this.’ And today, while the world is in a period of stasis, we wonder what the future holds and the individual choice every human being on the planet is going to have with some Rubicon they are going to have to cross. What is my part going to be in this struggle?”

Masters of the Air has a pair of squadron commanders at its focus, Gale “Buck” Cleven (Austin Butler) and John “Bucky” Egan (Callum Turner). The best friends would risk their lives day in and day out. Any single one of their bombing missions might be the last. The ones that survive would persevere and live to fight on another day. In watching the series, one can see why George Lucas went with temp footage of WW2 fighters in editing Star Wars! Anyway, they help lead the efforts in bombing rail facilities, oil refineries and other components. All in all, they have to beat out the German Luftwaffe in the air game. Otherwise, future efforts might fail.

It was pivotal for the Air Force to lead the efforts prior to D-Day and that’s where Maj. Harry Crosby (Anthony Boyle) comes into play. His flight plans were much too important. So much that he ends up sleeping for three straight days, even through D-Day itself. Without the Eight Air Force’s efforts, the Allied invasion at Normandy might have been an epic failure.

Masters of the Air is not without the sobering moments. The camera both follows and captures Maj. Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal (Nate Mann)–who would stay on during the Nuremberg prosecution–during a major discovery. It really displays the full shock at what the Nazis were capable of during the Holocaust. I wrote more of my thoughts about this in covering both The U.S. and the Holocaust and Against the Tide. But for the most part, the series is focusing on the fight in the air.

It’s not until later episodes that we get to witness what the P-51 Mustang can do. If not for the P-51s, the B-17s might not have reached their targets. Meanwhile, the 332nd Fighter Group offered its services by way of the Tuskegee Airman or Red Tails. Second lieutenant airmen Alexander Jefferson (Brandon Cook), Robert Daniels (Ncuti Gatwa) and Richard Macon (Josiah Cross) represent them. If not for them ending up at a POW camp with Cleven and Egan, it’s unlikely they’d be featured at all. Which would be a shame, of course. This also speaks to the segregation of the armed forces during WW2. But once they got to the POW camps, there was no racism–just a battle for survival through the end of the war.

"Masters of the Air" artwork, premiering January 26, 2024 on Apple TV+.
“Masters of the Air” artwork, premiering January 26, 2024 on Apple TV+.

Of 36 crews arriving in 1943, 34 of them would be shot down during the next few months. If you’re not familiar with their story, you’ll be on the edge of their seat. Will they make it out alive or are they a goner? Fighting the air game shows its differences from the land and the sea. Anyone reading Donald L. Miller’s 2006 book will also be at an advantage but this just goes without saying. Everyone in front and behind the camera are pivotal in bringing the book to the small screen. Because of Spielberg and Hanks, we’ll be talking about this series for a while. We’ll see if it joins the earlier series in winning the big prize at the Emmys. It’s certainly worthy of it.

Make no mistake that John Orloff puts a lot of care and detail into developing the series. He doesn’t just have the book alone because there are many other sources at hand. But at the end of the day, the final result lives up its previous WW2 predecessors. It’s obviously a hefty challenge to develop a series that needs to be as good as Band of Brothers, if not better. Masters of the Air could have been longer but having nine episodes is just enough to serve the story.

I cannot say enough good things about the costume design, production design, and the cinematic quality of the series. They really capture the claustrophobic experience of flying inside a B-17. That’s not an easy feat when one considers actually filming inside of the plane. Thorpe Abbotts is now a museum but the production goes above and beyond in recreating it at various sites in England. They utilize the Volume in the production process rather than traditional blue or green screen photography. It’s really become a game-changer in how movies and TV are made. If you ask me, the results are quite impressive.

We talk of people enlisting in World War II as being the Greatest Generation. There’s a reason for that. They rose up to the challenge after the attack on Pearl Harbor and took the fight to both the Europe and Pacific fronts. If not for their efforts, we’d all be speaking German and Jews like myself would not be alive. That’s why I’m so thankful for their service. War isn’t pretty but sometimes, it is a must. The Allied forces were fighting back against one of the worst evils to ever come into existence. It is not lost on me for as much of a minute that the series premieres one day prior to the International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2024.

Masters of the Air completes a WW2 trilogy and as much as it focuses on the action in the air, it’s also a reminder of the human element as the series captures the brotherhood in the air.

DIRECTORS: Cary Joji Fukunaga (101, 102, 103, 104), Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck (105, 106), Dee Rees (107, 108), Tim Van Patten (109)
WRITERS: John Orloff (teleplay 101-107, story 109), John Shiban and John Orloff (story 101), John Orloff & Joel Anderson Thompson and Dee Rees (teleplay 108), John Orloff and Joel Anderson Thompson & Morwenna Banks (story 108), John Orloff and John Orloff & Joel Anderson Thompson (teleplay 109)
EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg
CO-EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: Darryl Frank, Justin Falvey, Steve Shareshian, John Orloff, David Coatsworth, Graham Yost
CAST: Austin Butler, Callum Turner, Anthony Boyle, Nate Mann, Barry Keoghan, Bel Powley, Rafferty Law, Jonas Moore, Matt Gavan, Branden Cook, Ncuti Gatwa, Elliot Warren, Joanna Kulig, Edward Ashley, Josiah Cross

Apple TV+ will premiere the first two episodes of Masters of the Air on January 26, 2024. New episodes will premiere every Friday through March 15. Grade: 5/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.