REVIEW: Red Tails
One of the reasons World War II is called the last good war is that the stakes were clear and unambiguous. Those years spawned countless stories of heroism, sacrifice, and loss that never cease to fascinate subsequent generations. Some movies have gone to great lengths to recreate what the horrors of war must have been like while others go for a different approach, going for a stark contrast to exemplify the acts of one or a few. The pilots resulting from the Tuskegee training program deserve proper treatment in mass media of their experiences.
It was long known that this was a passion project for filmmaker George Lucas, who has been discussing making this story for over 20 years. Not surprisingly, the bean counters at the studios balked at an all-Black film fearing it wouldn’t play well domestically and fare even worse overseas. Thankfully, Star Wars made Lucas a wealthy man and allowed him to help finance and see his project to fruition. During the intervening years, he brought survivors of those years to his ranch and interviewed them, capturing their tales while the men were still around to provide first-hand accounts.
He assigned the scripting to John Ridley and the direction to Anthony Hemingway and the story was shot in 2009. Dissatisfied with the results, Lucas himself helmed reshoots using script material from Aaron McGruder. The resulting film was released earlier this year and will be out Tuesday from 20th Century Home Entertainment. Given the amount of time devoted to research and the passion from Lucas, one would have hoped for a more satisfying yarn. Once more his vaunted storytelling skills failed him as Lucas neglected to make the characters anything more than cardboard constructs, each filling an archetype but denying them a chance to shine via personality or dialogue. Instead, the 332d Fighter Group are as flat and wooden as the war movies made decades ago.
Audiences no longer seem satisfied with simplistic retellings of history let alone ones that play too fast and loose with the facts. Yes, it was Americans vs. Nazis and whites vs. blacks but the time called for more than just that and we don’t see it here. There’s the pipe-smoking, serious-minded squad leader, the alcoholic mission commander, lovesick hotdog, and the POW. But it feels more color by number than anything authentic. None are allowed to have any shading or complexity, oversimplifying them but robbing the film of its chance to be compelling drama.
Given the cast’s overall pedigree, they were certainly capable of handling more challenging roles and storylines. The film features David Oyelowo (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), Nate Parker (The Secret Life of Bees), Elijah Kelly (Hairspray), Tristan Wilds (90210), Method Man (The Wire), Ne-Yo (Stomp The Yard), Michael B. Jordon (Chronicle), Leslie Odom, Jr. (Smash), Marcus T. Paulk (Take the Lead), Kevin Philips (Pride), Andre Royo (The Wire), Daniela Ruah (NCIS: Los Angeles), Gerald McRaney (Major Dad), Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad). Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. also appear but were had better things to do in their previous Tuskegee films, Hart’s War and The Tuskegee Airmen respectively.
Lucas borrowed liberally from WW II films to construct the space battles in Star Wars and used them once more to influence the dogfighting scenes which give this turgid movie a pulse. Improved special effects also adds a sheen to these sequences and they are riveting to watch despite the pilots’ stories which prove remarkably predictable. Similarly, we know the pilot to fall for the Italian beauty Sofia (Daniela Ruah) is destined to die before the end credits and his memorial is interrupted by the unlikely return of the POW, who participated in the famous escape from Stalag 18.
The real events and the real men who endured substandard equipment and withering racism deserved a better tribute from Lucas. Thankfully, that comes in the form of Double Victory: The Tuskegee Airmen at War the lone special feature on the standard DVD (the Blu-ray edition contains just a few more short featurettes). The documentary previously aired on cable but is worth having here so audiences can hear from the real Tuskegee soldiers and is a must watch to provide some context for the popcorn thrills masquerading as a tribute.