20 years after Band of Brothers and 10 after The Pacific, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg are back with another epic Second World War miniseries. Masters of the Air is the story of the 100th Bomb Group of the US Air Force, who earned the nickname the “Bloody 100th” because of the appalling number of casualties that they suffered: of the original 38 pilots in the group, only four completed 25 missions. Many died and many were captured, and this show is a fitting testament to their frankly extraordinary bravery.

Their job was to fly B-17 bombers – known as “Flying Fortresses”, which becomes bitterly ironic over the course of the series – over occupied Europe, during the day and largely without fighter escorts, and essentially hope they survived getting shot full of holes long enough to reach the target. A British pilot in Part Two comments that the American strategy is basically suicidal, and it’s hard not to disagree.

Smartly, we focus in on a small core group of characters: Majors Gale “Buck” Cleven (Austin Butler, still carrying a slight Elvis twang in his voice) and John “Bucky” Egan (Callum Turner), Harry Crosby (Anthony Boyle), Curtis Biddick (the ubiquitous Barry Keoghan) and Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal (Nate Mann). It’s a good call to keep it tight, because when they’re airborne and wearing oxygen masks, it can be quite tricky in the early goings to remember who is who. Buck and Bucky are the leads, the show in no small part about their friendship, and Crosby is a kind of Ishmael, not really the hero as such but the man from whose perspective we see the story.

As you’d expect from a big, prestigious Apple production, all the money is on the screen. It looks superb, with huge sets, impeccable period detail and absolutely thrilling air battles. The cockpit scenes were shot in the Volume, giving them a real visceral immediacy and palpable sense of terror. When swarms of German fighters come barrelling towards the bombers, it’s white-knuckle, edge-of-the-seat stuff: as these impossibly fast planes go hurtling past, shooting the bombers to pieces, you wonder how the American gunners were ever able to hit anything in return.

It doesn’t skimp on the grisly details, with people coming back from missions frostbitten after being 25,000 feet in the air in an unpressurised plane, one man having the skin peeled from his hands after grabbing freezing metal without gloves, and all the gruesome injuries you’d expect from a post-Saving Private Ryan Second World War drama. The high points for the aerial combat are Parts Three and Five, the former of which is almost entirely in the air after the opening credits, and the latter of which features a nerve-shredding, desperate effort by a single isolated bomber to get home alive.

It’s not all battle, although we never really get a breather. One perk of it being about airmen is that they return to base after a mission, so we see characters who aren’t combatants too. There’s an emphasis on the importance of the ground crews and engineers, one of the best of whom is 19-year-old Ken Lemmons (Raff Law) who’s never even been in a plane, and Part Four is largely about different female perspectives on the war. We meet a Polish refugee in London who doesn’t know if her husband is alive or dead, and there’s a budding romance between an American and one of the women working at the base. In Part Six we’re also treated to a lovely, thoroughly charming guest turn from Bel Powley. These are points of view that don’t get explored all that often in this kind of story, and very welcome to see here.

There are stumbles: it’s hard not to wonder if there might have been another episode planned to bring the total to ten, and if things had to be condensed due to the effects of the Covid pandemic. There are some strange elisions where Rosie goes from three missions flown to 24 between episodes, characters who had been with the Free French are suddenly back at the base, and a proposed plan to use the bombers as bait to draw out and destroy the Luftwaffe never really materialises on screen, with us only seeing the aftermath. There’s so much to cover and only nine episodes to cover it in so it was inevitable that some things wouldn’t make the cut, and maybe it’s greedy to ask for more, but there are things here that deserved to be expanded upon.

Not the least of which is the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, African American pilots who had their own – segregated – groups but fought alongside the white airmen. They appear in Part Eight when their paths cross with some of the members of the 100th, but they feel a bit like a sub-plot. They simultaneously take us away from the main thread while making us wonder why they don’t have a series of their own because their story could easily carry one. Maybe if Spielberg and Hanks fancy a fourth of these miniseries?

Nonetheless, Part Nine more than compensates for these flaws by pulling everything together for a spectacular finale. Echoes of “Why We Fight”, the famous concentration camp episode of Band of Brothers, creep in more and more as the series progresses, with much of the last episode being from the perspective of the Jewish characters. The horrors of the Nazi regime are on full display, which makes the catharsis as it finally comes crumbling down all the greater. After spending nine hours with these characters, the scenes of triumph at the end of the war hit all the harder, and as people go home and long-awaited reunions happen it’s hard not to get a lump in your throat.

As you’d hope from what is essentially Band of Brothers 3.0, Masters of the Air is tremendous television. A few wobbles don’t undo all the good, and there are worse criticisms to make than “there isn’t enough of it”. It has sky-high production value, great characters played by great actors, and thrills and heart to spare. Prestige TV doesn’t get much better than this.

Streaming on Apple TV+ from 26th January / Austin Butler, Callum Turner, Barry Keoghan, Anthony Boyle, Nate Mann / Dir: Cary Joji Fukunaga, Dee Rees, Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, Tim Van Patten / Apple Studios

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