Director : Anthony Hemingway
Screenplay : John Ridley and Aaron McGruder (story by John Ridley)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2012
Stars : Nate Parker (Marty “Easy” Julian), David Oyelowo (Joe “Lightning” Little), Ne-Yo (Andrew “Smokey” Salem), Elijah Kelley (Samuel “Joker George”), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Maj. Emmanuel Stance), Terrence Howard (Col. A. J. Bullard), Lee Tergesen (Col. Jack Tomilson), Daniela Ruah (Sofia)
George Lucas has been trying to get a movie about the Tuskegee Airmen, the barrier-breaking African American military aviators who fought during World War II, for close to 25 years. His efforts have been stymied again and again by Hollywood studios who insist that they can’t market a big-budget action film with an all-black cast, so he finally put up $65 million of his own money to get Red Tails produced and distributed. There is genuine nobility in Lucas’s efforts to give cinematic voice to a momentous historical event that the studio system doesn’t see as marketable enough, but it makes one wish he had managed to produce a better movie than Red Tails, which is a deliberate throwback to 1940s war movies, but not in a good way.
Unlike the 1995 HBO production The Tuskegee Airmen, the only other major film on the subject, Red Tails eschews any background on the pilots and their training and begins in the middle of the war with the men of the 332nd Fighter Group already stationed in Ramitelli, Italy, where they run safe, routine missions shooting up trains and trucks, but don’t engage any enemy aircraft. The military powers that be are leery about using black aviators, largely because of a stunningly racist 1925 Army College report that determined that blacks were not intelligent enough and too inherently cowardly to engage in combat (we get a title card with a direct quote from the report, thus setting up the film as a rebuke to the ridiculousness of its findings). The two black officers in charge of the 332nd, Colonel A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) and Major Emmanuel Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.), know their men can stand the heat of battle if only they are given the chance. They finally get the opportunity to prove themselves when they are ordered to provide air cover for giant Boeing B-17 bombers (so-called “Flying Fortresses”), which are getting shot out of the sky too frequently because their fighter escorts keep leaving their wings to chase after German planes, thus leaving them vulnerable.
When Red Tails sticks to the skies, it maintains an entertaining thrill, albeit one that strays far from any sense of realism. The air battles are almost entirely computer generated, which allows director Anthony Hemingway, a television veteran making his feature film debut, to bring us right into the action as planes swoop and dive and spin and crash. The digital effects are effective once you get used to their general cartoonishness and lack of weight. One imagines that a lot of money was poured into the effects budget, but it still feels stretched thin and overproduced, as if the filmmakers were trying to get a little too much bang for their buck (it didn’t help that I had just watched the 1927 silent film Wings, whose aerial combat is genuinely enthralling with its pointed, in-the-cockpit realism). An opening credits sequence depicting the furious fighting around a bombing run is a case in point, as it throws so many planes onto the screen that it ends up looking like a video game version of a Star Wars Death Star assault (seeing Lucas behind the wheel of an actual war movie makes it clearer than ever how indebted his space opera is to the aerial antics of Flying Leathernecks and their ilk). We get the sense that the filmmakers are constantly trying to “wow” us, and in the process they forget to move us.
It is when the story is grounded that its clunkiness really shows. Much of the dramatic action revolves around the competing personalities of best friends Marty “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker), the squadron’s level-headed leader whose only flaw is that he eases his nerves with booze, and Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo), the squadron’s most skilled and flamboyant flyer who doesn’t like following orders, especially when said orders don’t involve him getting to shoot up whatever target he deems most appropriate. To add some estrogen to the proceedings, the screenplay supplies what is ostensibly a love story between Lightning and Sofia (Daniela Ruah), a local Italian girl he spies on a rooftop during a flyby and proceeds to woo despite the fact that neither speaks the other’s language, resulting in a cute, but emotionally empty depiction of wartime amour. There are some good moments of camaraderie among the men sprinkled throughout the film, but it is surprising that screenwriters John Ridley (Undercover Brother) and Aaron McGruder (The Boondocks) weren’t able to develop the characters more and get the creakiness out of the plot (they also allow for some woefully anachronistic dialogue; I am quite positive that no one in 1944 followed a funny statement with “Boom!”).
Unlike his Steven Spielberg, whose war films have always aimed high in terms of both drama and verisimilitude, Lucas has happily gone on record stating that Red Tails is meant to be little more than a rousing throwback to the heyday of Roosevelt-era war flicks that entertained the home front while the boys were off at war. The problem is that Lucas’s perspective distorts the reality of how those films were viewed at the time. Although they seem somewhat quaint and unrealistic by today’s standards, war films in the 1940s were seen as strikingly realistic and incredibly violent; without the Internet and 24-hour news channels, they were the primary means by which audiences developed an understanding of what was happening over in Europe. Red Tails self-consciously adopts the look and feel of those movies, but now the context is all wrong and it becomes an unwelcome crutch that saps the film of the emotional impact it could have had. The nobility of Lucas’s independent cinematic enterprise is sunk by a lack of artistic vision and daring.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © Lucasfilm Ltd.