Masters of the Air review: Spielberg and Hanks have produced television at its finest

From the makers of Band of Brothers and The Pacific

Masters Of The Air will follow the true story of a US bomber group (Apple TV /PA)
Masters Of The Air tells the true story of a US bomber group (Apple TV/PA)
Masters of the Air, Apple TV

If you’re a fan of Band of Brothers and The Pacific, it’s been a long wait for the final part of the trilogy.

Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks have been a decade in putting together Masters of the Air and boy has it been worth it.

They’ve brought a terrific cast, a Hollywood budget and the best fight scenes since Saving Private Ryan.

And here the technical challenges are more difficult because this time we’re following The 100th Bomb Group (’the Bloody Hundred’) as they seek to bring destruction to Nazi Germany from 20,000 ft.

Band of Brothers (2001) tracked the 101st Airborne as they fought their way towards Germany after the D-Day landings of 1944.

John ‘Bucky’ Egan (Callum Turner)
John ‘Bucky’ Egan (Callum Turner)

The Pacific (2010) followed the Marines in the later stages of the war in some of the most attritional fighting ever seen as they pushed the Japanese back home in a series of island battles.

In Master of the Air, Spielberg/Hanks return to the European theatre in 1943. The dark days of 1940 are behind Britain, the threat of invasion has passed and the Allies are starting to get on the offensive.

The invasion of Italy has begun and the 100th is now based in south-east England, within striking distance of Germany.

The obvious choice would have been a high-action fighter squadron although there were dangers that might have turned out a bit too like Top Gun the series.

Instead, they pick the true story of a bombing group, based on the 2007 book by Donald L Miller.

It’s perfect, because as with the previous series, what Spielberg/Hanks want to display is courage and loyalty. And you don’t get much more courageous than sitting in a slow-moving massive hunk of metal trying to maintain a position over an enemy target as flak guns and enemy fighters try to kill you.

The action scenes are terrifying. Men get their faces blown off, eject in flames and characters that you liked disappear.

For this reason, there are many characters and storylines, but the central action revolves around the two Bucks.

Gale ‘Buck’ Cleven (Austin Butler) and John ‘Bucky’ Egan (Callum Turner) are the kind of friends required in adversity but with very different characters.

Buck is cool and calm, Bucky is a fighter and the drinker, but a leader of men.

West Belfast’s Anthony Boyle plays Harry Crosby, a navigator with a fatal flaw: he is perennially air sick. And Dublin’s Barry Keoghan plays Lt Curtis Biddick a tough-talking New Yorker who keeps the instructions to his crew simple: “Knock one off and drop bombs on those Nazi f***s.”

Anthony Boyle in Masters Of The Air (Apple TV+/PA) (Robert Viglasky/Courtesy of Apple)
Barry Keoghan plays Lt Curtis Biddick
Barry Keoghan plays Lt Curtis Biddick

But it’s not just the fight scenes that will have you gripping the side of the couch. The preparation sections are also tense.

These are young men, a long way from home, about to embark on a mission they know not all of them will return from.

By this time in the war, the British had restricted themselves to night raids.

The bombing was less accurate, but the casualties were also significantly lower for the airmen. However, this meant you accepted less destruction of key enemy targets and higher rates of civilian casualties.

The Americans were intent on daytime bomb runs and thus paid the price in their own men.

On the morning of a run, the airmen were served a special breakfast (dubbed the ‘last supper’) which had double rations and fresh juice.

This was followed by an invitation for a chat with the company padre for those who needed. Then it was time to jump into the slow moving hunk of metal.

It takes a special kind of bravery to keep turning up for that special breakfast.