Arts & Events

FILM REVIEW: Red Tails: May the Air Force Be With You

By Gar Smith
Friday February 17, 2012 - 11:34:00 AM
A Red Tail Air Battle
A Red Tail Air Battle
The cast of Red Tails
The cast of Red Tails

There is a quick-and-easy way of describing Red Tails, George Lucas' new film about the Tuskegee Airmen: "Star Wars with propellers." Red Tails is a film to see and a film to support but it is not the film event it could have been. 

Lucas and director Anthony Hemingway deserve props for spectacle but, if you're expecting a historical drama about the African American struggle to win a cockpit seat in WWII, this isn't that film. Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder, an admitted Star Wars fan, claims he convinced Lucas to abandon a history-rooted version and, instead, turn Red Tails into a battle-action film that would make Obi wan with envy. The result is a movie that looks more like it was drawn from a graphic novel than from the pages of US civil rights history. 

The first clue is the on-screen caveat that precedes the film: "Inspired by True Events." This tells us what we're about to see is even further from the truth than a film "Based on a True Story." So, instead of taking us to the fields of Alabama or to the halls of Congress, Red Tails begins (like an episode of the Star Wars Trilogy) with a blazing full-bore battle. Only this time, we're not zipping around in a Galaxy Far, Far Away, we're in the skies over Italy, smack in the middle of WWII. It's not a space battle; it's an airspace battle. IOW: Same thing. 

Lucas deserves a ringing ovation for insisting on executive-producing this film in the face of resistance from major studios who, as Lucas explains, had no interest in financing a film with "an all-Black cast." And it's a pleasure to see the film (which Lucas had to finance out of his own pocket) drawing enthusiastic audiences — and millions of dollars — into theaters across the country. 

Lucas has (perhaps jokingly) invited other directors to step forward and produce a "prequel" and "sequel" to create a Red Tails Trilogy. Not a bad idea. In the meantime, we only have the portion of the story that Lucas has given us. 

As Red Tails begins, it is 1944 and the Tuskegee Airmen are already in harness, diving through the clouds and picking off enemy trucks and trains. The problem is, they've been relegated to the rear seat of the war effort and they've been stuck with the kind of hand-me-down planes that come with second-class military citizenship. 

Red Tails exists primarily as a vehicle for high-octane film spectacle. The CGI air battles are incredible. At times there appear to be hundreds of planes in the air at the same time—US bombers, escort fighters and German attackers. (Were these air-battles really so epic or is Lucas inflating history to the proportions of fantasy?) When a plane catches fire, explodes, or slams into a pasture or summersaults down a landing strip, the details of mechanical destruction are rendered with obsessive attention. 

And then there's the story. 

The characters seem earnest enough and their plight is easy to sympathize with but these characters just aren't believable. Watching Red Tails begins to feel like watching a mash-up of MASH and Inglorious Basterds. This is partly due to the artifice of staging a war story in an anachronistic era of prop-driven aircraft but the characters are also anachronisms. Lucas (perhaps under McGruder's tutelage) has created a cast of characters that looks and sounds like it was cloned from the DNA of a 1950's war film. 

Instead of a group of interesting strangers that we slowly get to know, Lucas gives us one familiar archetype after another. There's "Lightning" (David Oyelowo), the dashing ladies' man whose derring-do is matched only by his seething resentments. There's "Easy" (Nate Parker), Lightning's tent-mate and immediate superior, who drowns his self-doubt with an ever-ready bottle of whiskey. There's "Junior" (Tristan Wilds), the newcomer who needs to prove his bravery, regardless the cost. There's the "Old Man" (Terrance Howard), dealing with the powers-that-be back in Washington. We also have "Smokey," "Joker," "Winky," and "Sticks." Finally, there's "The Major," a grimacing, pipe-chomping Cuba Gooding, Jr., who takes the art of scenery chewing to new, literal heights. 

The screenplay hobbles the actors with scenes that make it impossible to "suspend belief." For starters: I can accept a scene where a single pilot armed only with a pair of blazing wing-guns managing to disintegrate a speeding locomotive but Lightning's "meet-cute" with a leggy Italian sweetie just doesn't fly. Here's what director Hemingway gives us: Roaring back from a mission, Lightning soars over the nearest Italian town (a scenic coastal village that appears untouched by war). Looking down, he spots Sofia (Daniela Ruah) on her rooftop hanging laundry. She looks up and smiles. He looks down and grins. She looks up and blows him a kiss. He looks down and blows her a kiss. And half the audience is thinking: This couldn't happen even if he was driving by in a run-down Volvo, let alone at the controls of an airplane blasting by a 400 mph. 

One of the other Great Improbabilities occurs when the Red Tails are given brand-new P-51 Mustangs and assigned to escort a fleet of bombers on a critical run to attack Berlin. The Red Tails, however, are told they will only be allowed to shadow the bombers for the first leg of the trip, after which the Top Gun White Guys from the 54th Squadron will take over to make sure the job is done right. So what happens? As the airborne armada crosses over the German border, a bomber pilots asks rhetorically: "Where's the 54th?" You guessed it. The other squadron is nowhere to be seen and the Red Tails have to take charge. Again, half the audience is now thinking: "Somebody in the Air Force is going to get court-martialed for that blunder!" 

The attack on Berlin is particularly disturbing. It's been a long time since Germans have been cast as The Western World's Most Subhuman Villains. Many people who go to see this film will have spent time in Europe on vacation and many will recognize the River Spree as it winds through the city—now framed in the bombsite of an Allied bomber. Because of the passage of time and shifting political alliances, there is no joy in watching US bombs starting to rain down on the rooftops of central Berlin. 

This leads to another fundamental problem with Red Tails. For anyone who has grown tired of war or has become too aware of the use of "governing falsehoods" designed to steer nations into bloody combat, Red Tails raises an uncomfortable question: Why are we celebrating the fact that Black Americans have been given the opportunity to kill foreigners in a White Man's War? (This in no way diminishes the courage and competence of the extraordinary individuals who broke the Pentagon's blue-sky color barrier. But it does place their sacrifice—and those of the majority of conscripted and volunteer soldiers—in a more somber and morally fractured frame.) 

So hats off to Lucas and crew for a rousing, CGI-assisted potboiler that offers lots of easy action and cartoon exuberance. Red Tails was worth the price of a ticket but I'm setting my money aside for the prequel. If we're lucky, Spike Lee will do it.