Anthony Hemingway (with assistance from George Lucas) has done something few directors have been ever able to achieve — he has created a war film almost completely devoid of drama, passion or interest. And given the subject matter of this movie, that’s an amazing statistic.
Based on “true events,” Red Tails is a chronicle — somewhat — of the famous group of black pilots who began their segregated training in Tuskegee, Alabama in 1943. The men were supposed to augment their white counterparts in mainly mop-up missions in already occupied European territory, but a shortage of white pilots necessitated their entry into active combat.
Formally becoming the 332nd Fighter Group, but forever known as the Tuskegee Airmen, this brave unit, who fought a two-front battle — first at home against white skepticism and racism during training, and then over the skies against Luftwaffe pilots — deserved a much better story than the tepid, disjointed effort Hemingway gives them here.
The first problem is that we’re given no context as to what these men went through in Alabama, where the dangers they faced by an angry Caucasian populace was equal, if not worse, than what they would face against the Germans. There’s nothing about this segment of the real story, instead, we’re deposited directly in Italy in 1944, months after the first group has shipped out overseas.
Few in the audience will realize just how difficult this part of these pilots’ lives really was, and Hemingway certainly could have shown SOME kind of backstory to bring the point home. With no racial context whatsoever, when one of the men, Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo, “The Help,” “Rise Of the Planet Of the Apes“) finally meets some bigots, it’s as if they dropped down from the planet Mars.
Another sin Hemingway commits in Red Tails is he tears down the reputation of white fighter pilots in an effort to build up the Tuskegee Airmen, a device that is completely unnecessary. The opening scene shows moronic escort pilots abandoning their heavy bombers like crazy while stereotypical evil Germans mow everyone down. The black airmen can stand on their own accord without making the white pilots look like foolish glory hunters who willfully sacrificed the lives of the bomber crews. There’s enough room in the story of World War II for both races (and many, many others) to share credit.
Then there’s the dialogue and — to a certain extent — the over-the-top acting. This is never more evident than when one of the men ties to land his crippled plane, uttering lines like, “My head, it hurts,” “I’m getting dizzy” and “I must have passed out.” These are lines that could have come directly from those B-grade propaganda pictures cranked out during the real war.
But let’s get to the plot of Red Tails, which tells of a squadron of Tuskegee pilots, including Little, Ray “Junior” Gannon (Tristan Wilds, “The Secret Life Of Bees“), Maurice “Bumps”Wilson (Michael B. Jordan) and leader Martin “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker, “The Great Debaters“), among others, who are assigned rickety planes for duty far from front line action. These young actors give it their best shot, but the drama of the story far exceeds their abilities. Even the inclusion of Oscar nominee Terrence Howard (“Hustle & Flow”) and Academy Award winner Cuba Gooding, Jr. (“Jerry Maguire“) does not help.
The flyers do distinguish themselves, however, enough to draw the ire of a villainous white colonel (Brian Cranston, “Malcolm in the Middle,” “Breaking Bad” TV series) trying to keep them down; but kindly Gen. Luntz (Gerald McRaney, TV series “Major Dad“) sees something special in the group and allows them to cover an amphibious landing and then to escort bombers over German territory.
Of course, the men do not leave their bombers and become heroes, so much so that Luntz allows them to take the bombers in their first leg in an attack on Berlin itself. In this battle, they will see an example of the Messerschmidt-262, the world’s first jet aircraft. This doesn’t seem to faze these pilots, though, because the Nazis in this movie are the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, and, even with the ability to travel three times the speed of a propeller-driven aircraft, are still routed at every turn.
To top it all off, Hemingway then throws in a ridiculous love story between Little and an Italian woman that is totally out of place, as well as a short segment that turns the picture into “Stalag 17” and “The Great Escape.” A melodramatic, manufactured “happy” ending tacked on puts the icing on this entire disappointing experience.
I give the Red Tails director some credit for trying, but in an effort to make another “Glory” or even “A Soldier’s Story,” he has turned the true story of a group of brave men battling the odds from the enemy and their supposed comrades into a dull, soulless, heartless documentary.
Then again, however, at least the documentary would be telling the real story.