Hmmm, I wonder what could have prompted HBO Home Video to upgrade their 1995 TV movie The Tuskegee Airmen for a Blu-ray release? Looking at their slate for January, we see that it's being accompanied by the new performance film Thurgood (starring Airmen's Laurence Fishburne) and their acclaimed 1991 film The Josephine Baker Story; some kind of pre-Black History Month trilogy, perhaps? Yes, that must be it. I'm certain its January 17th Blu-ray release has nothing whatsoever to do with the theatrical release, three days later, of Red Tails, the George Lucas-financed dramatization of the Tuskegee story. Must be a coincidence!
When word first broke that Red Tails, which Lucas had reportedly been trying to make for decades, was on the way, many of us wondered why he'd bothered. HBO had, in fact, made a fine film from the story already (featuring Red Tails co-star Cuba Gooding, Jr., even), albeit one that used composite characters and stock footage (as opposed to Lucas's CG-heavy flight sequences). But returning to The Tuskegee Airmen proves it an effective and absorbing picture, with heavy emotional weight.
The WWII-era Tuskegee project was an "experiment" to see if black fighter pilots could train for, and perform in, combat conditions. We get an idea of what they're up against in the early scenes, as the north-to-south train stops to oust the black trainees to a separate car--so that they can give up their seats for German POWs. More trials come during their training, which is supervised by the racist, pompous Major Joy (played, no surprise, by Christopher McDonald), and not all of the men make it.
Their strong personalities (some would say stock characterizations) are set up early: bookworm Peoples (Allen Payne), thoughtful Cappy (Malcolm Jamal-Warner), gregarious Roberts (Cuba Gooding Jr.), charming Johns (Mekhi Phifer), and dedicated Hannibal Lee (Fishburne). The teleplay, by Paris Qualles, Trey Ellis, and Ron Hutchinson, is occasionally strained, but the scenes of barracks byplay are funny and easy-going, and they give the actors plenty to dig into.
John Lithgow is brought in as the villain with the biggest bullseye--as an utterly vile Senator who seeks to stop the program, he's not subtle, but he's awfully convincing. Gooding Jr. gives the kind of pure heart performance that won him an Oscar the following year. The Lee character's mood and ideological swings sometimes seem timed mostly to the convenience of the narrative (and its need for conflict), but Fishburne imbues him with strength and dignity. Admittedly, his anchor role is a bit thankless, compared to the showier roles of his compatriots and of Courtney B. Vance and Andre Braugher as their commanding officers.
The former makes a real weapon out of his cool, quiet delivery (watch the deliberate way he tells Peoples "I wish... there was something... I could do"), while the riveting Braugher gets the best speech in the picture. "There is no greater conflict within me," he tells a Senate subcomitte, than two simple questions: "How do I feel about my country? And how does my country feel about me?" Gooding Jr.'s Roberts puts a finer point on it: "Why would you want to fight for a country that thanks you by lynching you?" But, to his credit, Fishburne's Lee considers the question, and has an answer that many brave men and women have also come up with.
Video & Audio:
The Tuskegee Airmen shows its age--and TV roots--a bit in its adequate but rather underwhelming MPEG-4 AVC-encoded transfer; the colors are a bit faded, and black levels are somewhat sketchy in the night scenes. The use of stock footage is also particularly jarring when seen in HD. But, those complaints aside, it's a reasonably sharp and attractive image. The English DTS-HD Master Audio track is more impressive, with stirring sound effects and music in the dogfight scenes; whirring propellers and chugging engines mingle well with Lee Holdridge's stirring score, while surrounds are also subtly but effectively engaged in quieter, dialogue-driven scenes.
French DTS Digital Surround 2.0 and Spanish DTS Digital Surround 1.0 tracks are also available, as are English SDH, French, and Spanish subs.
Unfortunately, there are no bonus features to speak of, save for a brief essay and several black and white photos bound in the disc's Digibook-style case.
The Tuskegee Airmen has its problems--the dialogue is occasionally tinny, the use of stock footage is ill-advised, and some corny devices are employed (Lee's late-film flashbacks to his fellow airmen, complete with echoed sound, are especially egregious). But it's filled with heartfelt, direct scenes, like Braugher's testimony and an improvised landing near a chain gang, and when that music swells as the frame pans across the photos of the real men, the real heroes, it gets you. This is a story that went untold for too long; if it's being told again, well, there's worse things for George Lucas to do with his money.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.