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Red-blooded American boys of any color love military aviation films, and Hollywood has repeatedly returned to the subgenre to excite new generations with the fantasy of being a dashing fighter pilot, knocking enemy planes out of the sky, doing victory rolls and celebrating back at the aerodrome with the gorgeous local girls.
Despite becoming one of the most financially successful filmmakers of the century, George Lucas hasn't shown much in the way of originality since the 1980s. His new Red Tails movie is reportedly a personal labor of love that took many years to get to the screen. Lucas's mission was to make an old-fashioned uncomplicated gung-ho action movie about the noted Tuskeegee Airmen, the black aviator squadron from WW2. The "Negro" fliers served with distinction, putting the lie to traditional ideas that blacks were inferior; by far the greatest contribution by the unit was its role in integrating the American Armed forces, which happened not long after the Allied victory.
Executive producer Lucas drew from an impressive pool of talent, much of it associated with the cable TV show The Wire. Except for a few sequences the movie sticks almost exclusively with its black cast of heroes, all of whom come across as dashing and personable. Lucas said he wanted a show that would highlight an unheralded chapter of black history, to give black kids the same kind of heroes he looked up to when he was young.
The top Army Air Corps brass treats the all-Negro 332nd Fighter Group as a politically mandated waste of time. The unit flies outdated P-40 pursuit planes and must restrict its activities to mundane chores far from centers of combat. Officers Colonel Bullard (Terrence Howard) and Major Stance (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) demand a chance for the Tuskeegee Airmen to show what they can do before the AAC disbands them altogether. Thanks to some outstanding flying and impressive kills against the Germans while covering a beach landing, the unit finally wins new P-51 Mustang fighters and is allowed to escort mass daylight bombing raids into Germany. They continue to distinguish themselves, but then they come up against new German jet planes. Out-matched by the ultra-fast jets, the brave fliers refuse to give up.
The individual stories adapt familiar situations from older aviation movies. Squadron leader 'Easy' Julian (Nate Parker) has a drinking problem. The religious flyer 'Deke' Watkins (Marcus T. Paulk) should be scratched from the flying roster after a major injury, but Easy okays him for another mission. 'Ray Gun' Junior Gannon (Tristan Wilds) is shot down and finds himself in a German prison camp with white flyers. The unit's most aggressive and successful flyer is Joe 'Lightning' Little (David Oyelowo). He has a problem obeying orders but his show-off moves win honor for the squadron. Lightning also courts and falls in love with an Italian girl, and asks for her hand in marriage.
Red Tails delivers on its promise of wall-to-wall high-powered dogfights and spectacular aerial action. The credits list a couple of dozen pilots and an aerial unit so we know that some real flying is on view, or at least authentic aerial backgrounds. It should be clear to any viewer that most of the action is CGi work. There might not be more than one or two of the large bomber planes still flying, and we see dozens of them. The airplanes look marvelous and so does the effects work that unites the individual flyers with moving backgrounds; we've come a long way from the canvas sky backings in Flying Tigers. In all fairness, Lucas avoids the excessive CGI tricks that made Scorsese's aerial scenes look silly -- there are no one-take shots that take us from infinity into a pilot's eyeball, for instance. But the action is still mostly visually unreadable. ILM (and several subsidiaries) present aerial scenes as giant vistas filled with planes going every which way. The planes fly far too closely together; a typical shot has six fighters zipping through a formation of bombers at ridiculous relative speeds, even flying in the opposite direction. It's just a big (forgive the allusion) Video Game that pretends that human reactions can keep up with a 3-D jumble of objects zipping around.
I saw a couple of pre-release publicity appearances by George Lucas where he already had a chip on his shoulder about the non-ecstatic reception of his big-scale action film. The planes are pretty and the cast certainly offers an array of heroic types, but the movie is not good at all. It's a tame and predictable revisit of old movie situations likely to appeal only to small children. In that Lucas has succeeded in his mission.
But I can't see adults being as generous. Red Tails is a very race-conscious movie that chooses to revise history in insipid ways, Adults with knowledge of WW2 history will reject it, and the only progressive people to approve of its evasions will be the kind that approve of any positive filmic view of minorities, no matter how false. I wonder what Donald Bogle's take on Red Tails might be; he's fastidiously forthright about these things.
The movie makes it look as if the 332nd was an all-black unit that never had white officers. The attitudes on view are completely anachronistic. The relationship between the fliers and their supervisors is a joke -- the airmen rarely acknowledge rank and orders are frequently ignored. They are instead professional friends. The paternalistic Bullard and Stance are respected, but other professional interactions are based on 'tude, not rank. This becomes absurd when the Squadron's black officers report to white generals, the less professional of which would be uncomfortable seeing blacks in uniforms or be coldly condescending. Bullard shows major 'tude in strategy meetings where nobody, but nobody would be contradicting the words of the Big Dog Commander unless specifically invited to do so. In more than one scene, white commanders come begging to Bullard, asking if his fliers can pull their chestnuts out of the fire. It's as if the 'other' white Air Force out there is an ineffectual joke.
The very first scene makes the blanket statement that white fighter escorts routinely abandon the bombers they are supposed to protect, to chase German fighters in hopes of earning a kill. The movie hands us the nonsense that only the Negro fliers will stay on task and fly the missions they are supposed to fly. Of course, hotshot Lightning Little frequently does what he wants anyway.
It was my impression that Germany's proto-jet fighters made a late appearance in the war and never in force; they never got the opportunity to make a difference against the overwhelming Allied air superiority. Red Tails shows the Nazis throwing dozens of the new jets against a bomber squadron, like next-generation TIE fighters stomping on the Federation's old X-Wing fighters. Somehow the Tuskeegee fighters shoot several of them down and chase the others away.
Okay, so older aviation movies are exaggerated too. Lightning's strafing run seems to destroy an entire German battleship, as if ships stored ammo and fuel out on the decks, to be ignited. The old Dawn Patrol showed a biplane dropping little bombs, each of which blew up an entire German factory, like a blockbuster. Whether pilots lived or died depended on personalities; guys with The Right Stuff naturally prevailed. In Red Tails the Negro fliers can do no wrong. After Bullard promises big improvements during bomber escorts, NO bombers are lost at all. In reality, newer and better planes arrived that enabled fighters to escort bombers all the way to the target and back. The statistics for ALL squadrons improved dramatically. I'm told that the back of the German Luftwaffe was broken by 1944, yet they still were able to put up impressively lethal resistance against the Allies. Red Tails represents the German threat through one nasty opponent with a scar on his face. His un-translated German talk sounds like evil chicken noises.
I know it's depressing, but the truth of the treatment of blacks in the U.S. Armed forces makes Red Tails play like a feel-good fairy tale. A read of Studs Turkel's The Good War brings up hateful instances of organized, sanctioned violence against black units. The mostly well-educated Tuskeegee Airmen hoped that their service and gallantry would change attitudes for the better, but when they came back to civilian America things were pretty much the same. When Red Tails portrays them as having escaped all that, it doesn't seem right. I'm sure that white flyers cited and thanked the unit for its service, but bitter prejudice isn't overcome that easily.
If director Anthony Hemingway made a personal mark on Red Tails, I don't see it -- the whole show seems micromanaged by George Lucas. As in his other big-scale movies, the story is carried by poorly written dialogue. Badly delivered wild lines constantly pop up to cover expositional points. In the flying scenes, we hear pilots tell us what's happening that the pictures don't show: "We're being escorted by a Negro squadron. I don't think we're going to get much protection." Followed by: "They didn't break off. They're staying with us!" It's all flat, fake, and uncinematic in the extreme.
Lucas also throws in a superfluous and abortive subplot about Lightning Little's romance with an Italian girl. She lives in a gorgeous hilltop neighborhood that looks like a commercial for Italian Salad dressing. The interracial affair, which in 1944 would be an explosive situation, is both cloying and insubstantial. I guess nobody in her family has any racial bias? It's not an issue, and its absence numbs the brain.
Less mystifying but equally galling is Red Tails' shoehorning-in of a quickie "Great Escape" subplot, handled in what must be less than five minutes of screen time. Ray Gun Gannon earns the admiration of his fellow POWs 1 and escapes with them. How, how, I ask (I mean really, how?) does this black soldier walk back to Italy through Nazi Germany? If that's not enough, Lucas/Hemingway plagiarize the critical scene from The Great Escape where a German guard finds the tunnel exit just as the escapees are coming up. It's the same exact action. I know it's fifty years ago, Mr. Lucas, but we're not dumb and we watch a lot of war movies. I'm sure black kids know them just as well as we do. You can't "do Steve McQueen" and then not get compared unfavorably with Steve McQueen. This isn't Star Wars where you can make it so that Princess Leia shoots first, just to spite ungrateful fans. After American Graffiti and Star Wars you were the greatest film student-turned director of them all, and that's how we like to remember you.
Fox and Lucasfilm's Blu-ray - DVD combo of Red Tails presents this colorful effect-laden air combat film in a beautiful HD transfer, giving us a terrific view of every shiny aluminum airplane and every photo-real special effect. Even when the airmen are living in tents in the mud, everything looks clean and healthy -- no dirty undershirts here, not even on the mechanics. I can't see anybody complaining about the technical presentation of the video.
The disc has several interesting extras. A worthwhile historical documentary uses interviews with real Tuskeegee Airmen to explain the unit's "Double Victories" over the Axis and the race barrier in the Armed Forces. Other featurettes cover George Lucas ("I'm not a flyer but I like things that go fast!"), director Anthony Hemingway and composer Terence Blanchard. The engaging pro cast has its own entertaining featurette. And a "Movie Magic" featurette goes into the details of the special effects, done primarily by Lucas's own ILM in Marin County and in Singapore. The film itself was shot in Czechoslovakia.
The second DVD disc has the main feature and only one extra, what seems to be an edited featurette version of the "Double Victory" docu.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Red Tails Blu-ray rates:
1. In the movie's ONE brilliant plot idea, Ray Gun is welcomed into the escape unit precisely because he's black -- and therefore cannot be a spy planted by the Germans. It's a backhanded way to find friends, but who's complaining?
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T'was Ever Thus.