With a development process spanning twenty-plus years and a release date almost six months after its US opening, Red Tails, George Lucas’ long-discussed account of the Tuskegee Airmen, finally hits our screens.
Scripted by John Ridley (Three Kings, U-Turn) and Aaron McGruder (Boondocks), and directed by Anthony Hemingway (The Wire, Treme), Red Tails follows the 332nd fighter group, a squadron of African American fighter pilots who overcame racial discrimination to become one of the most decorated in World War II.
Very much an ensemble piece, featuring a cast that includes Cuba Gooding Jr, Terrence Howard, Bryan Cranston and Britain’s own David Oyelowo, Red Tails takes a broad brushstroke approach to its storytelling.
Focusing solely on the story of the pilots, who were reluctantly allowed to fly combat missions after the failure of the regular squadrons to protect US bombers on their raids into Germany, it eschews the broader political questions of the time and instead delivers an uplifting tale of heroic derring-do.
From the brightly colored aerial dogfight that opens the picture, it’s clear that Red Tails is both a George Lucas production and a distinctly comic book retelling of a fascinating piece of US social history. Featuring some of the most exhilarating aerial combat sequences committed to film since Top Gun, Red Tails knows its strengths and plays to them at every opportunity.
It certainly doesn’t hurt the film that the sound and picture editing has been overseen by Star Wars and Indiana Jones veteran, Ben Burtt. An unsung hero of the Lucasfilm family, Burtt’s work lends the action segments a life, vitality and clarity that most modern action pictures struggle to achieve. Unfortunately, that life and vitality is mainly absent during the scenes set back on terra firma, which recast the story of the 332nd squadron as an obvious, though sweet-natured, melodrama.
Mainly centring on the story of Joe ‘Lightning’ Little (Oyelowo), Martin ‘Easy’ Julian (Nate Parker) and Ray ‘Ray Gun’ Gannon (Tristan Wilds), during the two-hour plus running time we witness boys becoming men, mavericks learning humility, reluctant leaders struggling under pressure and young love thwarted by the cruelty of war.
While the younger cast is left to wrestle with the ‘soapier’ material, it falls to Cuba Gooding Jr and Terrence Howard to try and breathe life into the more expositional aspects of the story. For the most part they just about succeed, but one comes away from the film wishing that both actors (along with the criminally underused Bryan Cranston) could have been utilized in a more interesting and effective way. That said, despite its somewhat crude approach to storytelling and character, taken on its own terms Red Tails just about works.
Whether it’s the consistently earnest and sincere tone it adopts, or simply the fact that World War II movie archetypes are somehow deeply reassuring, there is something about the film that makes it a far more effective whole than you’d otherwise expect.
Which isn’t to say Red Tails is for everyone. Many will no doubt baulk at its Ripping Yarns approach to history, while those of a more cynical disposition would be better off watching either 1995’s The Tuskegee Airmen, or even Clint Eastwood’s 2003 Flags Of Our Fathers, which examines America’s treatment of its WWII heroes through far less rose tinted spectacles.