Barry Keoghan is part of an all-star cast of young actors in the spiritual successor to Band of Brothers (Picture: Apple TV+)
The hotly anticipated World War Two epic Masters of the Air is finally here – representing the hoped-for quality from the dream team of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, as well as a departure for Barry Keoghan, following his headline-grabbing antics in Saltburn.
In fairness, it was never going to be a dud as a companion series to both Band of Brothers – still held up as an example of one of the finest TV mini-series ever made – and The Pacific, also executive produced by the pair and Gary Goetzman.
Well, Masters of the Air’s sweeping and heartbreaking nature almost immediately puts paid to any doubt that there isn’t still an audience for this kind of show, as well as Blake Neely’s stirring music.
It will undoubtedly remain one of the television events of 2024.
Also, while the series may have been filmed back in 2021, its release couldn’t be better timed with the ascendency of its star cast, from Keoghan to fellow Oscar nominee Austin Butler (Elvis), Callum Turner and Doctor Who’s Ncuti Gatwa.
Elvis star Austin Butler and Callum Turner take the lead roles as friends and fellow pilots (Picture: Apple TV+)
Masters of the Air retells the exploits and war experiences of the ‘Bloody Hundredth’ (Picture: Apple TV+)
The drama’s ensemble and scope are both sprawling as it follows the men of the US Army Airforces’ 100th Bomb Group (the ‘Bloody Hundredth’, due to its heavy mortalities) as they conduct perilous bombing raids over Nazi Germany from their base in East Anglia.
As well as fully embracing the famous complaint that the Yanks were ‘over-sexed, over-paid and over here’ when the boys blow off steam with the locals, we can also be struck by the random nugget that Butler now knows both where Norwich is – and how to say it.
Turner and Butler are the main focus of Masters of the Air– created by John Orloff – as fellow officers and firm friends, Major John ‘Bucky’ Egan and Major Gale ‘Buck’ Cleven (less confusing than it sounds).
Oscar nominee Keoghan is the upbeat Lt. Curtis Biddick (Picture: Apple TV+)
New Doctor Who star Ncuti Gatwa also appears as part of an historic Black flying unit (Picture: Apple TV+)
Although it’s tough going at first to distinguish characters and names during the aerial scenes when masks cover everything but actors’ eyes, Egan and Cleven are easily drawn as chalk and cheese: a reckless and rudderless charmer and his calmer, more considered friend whose greatest indulgence is ginger beer.
Keoghan, after a slightly questionable Liverpudlian accent for Saltburn, fares better with broad New York tones as Lt. Curtis Biddick, who talks the talk and punches the punch.
Gregarious, friendly and full of rizz (as the kids say), he’s the archetype of the ever-chipper colleague who you know has always got your back – especially when the proverbial hits the propeller, which it almost always does for the Hundredth.
Also, not that Masters of the Air requires additional poignancy given what it depicts, but its cast are playing real-life figures drawn from the pages of Donald L Miller’s 2007 book of the same name, which itself was painstakingly put together from interviews, oral histories and other archives.
Masters of the Air’s World War Two scope is vast over its nine episodes (Picture: Apple TV+)
It also covers great swathes of the world and the war in its setting, from Russia to Africa, as well as the unforgiving POW camp experience, the Resistance in Europe and the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the first Black US flying unit.
Although not gratuitous, there’s also no shying away from the gore of a face being blown off here, or, indeed, smashed in with a spade. There’s also time to reflect on the brutality of bombing raids on civilians caught up on both sides.
Alongside Keoghan, Butler and Turner, Raff Law is hard to miss as Sgt. Ken Lemmons, a chief crew, while Sawyer Spielberg appears as Lt. Roy Frank Claytor.
Jude Law’s son Raff is a dead ringer for his famous father in a sweet supporting role (Picture: Apple TV+)
Standouts in the show also include Anthony Boyle (Ordeal by Innocence, theatre’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), as motion sickness-prone navigator Harry Crosby, who narrates, and Nate Mann as the thoroughly decent Major Robert ‘Rosie’ Rosenthal.
Masters of the Air has every ingredient you’d expect to find in a thorough and wide-ranging account of some of the US Airforce’s experiences in Europe during the Second World War.
A standout is Anthony Boyle as narrator and navigator, Harry Crosby (Picture: Apple TV+)
Nate Mann also portrays one of the most admirable characters in the series, Major Robert Rosenthal (Picture: Apple TV+)
However, it also proves that that makes it no less effective, to perhaps be a little predictable – after all, this period in history has been covered extensively in TV and film – and well – because it still manages to surpass expectations.
As World War Two slips further away from living memory, Masters of the Air’s real-life figures provide a worthy tribute to the sacrifices a generation were forced to make across the world, and a lesson we’re still struggling to learn from over 80 years later.
Masters of the Air streams exclusively on Apple TV Plus from Friday, January 26.
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