By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
When first the Tuskegee Airmen take to the sky in “Red Tails,” director Anthony Hemingway’s action-filled chronicle inspired by the African-American 332nd Squadron’s service during WWII, you want to be a pilot, too. At least I did. And the six fifteen-year-old boys to my right, who quieted down once the pageantry began, apparently agreed.
Cut it any way you wish, this is a war movie, proving that all black casts are subject to the same bromides that have been a mainstay of the genre ever since the earliest celluloid depictions of man’s inability to keep the peace. For the most part we like such fare, an uneasy fact to be reconciled by the civilized we. “Red Tails” delivers it no differently.
Where it diverges, however, says a profoundly eerie thing about patriotism. The Red Tails, so nicknamed for how they’ve painted the rear wings of their planes, want the right to fight, and yes, even the right to die, for their country. You see, back in the 1940s, Jim Crow felt only white soldiers were good enough for that honor. “Red Tails” corrects him.
Willing to pay the price for said recognition if necessary is the gaggle of dedicated pilots who form the cast’s main hub. Bringing their little soap opera to the scenario are bickering best pals Captain Marty “Easy” Julian, portrayed by Nate Parker, and the finest ace under his command, the daredevil, Joe “Lightning” Little, played by David Oyelowo.
Getting into their bravado-laced saga, learning what drives them, why they squabble and what they admire, we pause in the stark realization that these are kids, that it’s they who do our fighting. And although there is scant if any antiwar sentiment intended in this account, just that fact alone makes us want to do away with the whole stinking business.
But that will have to wait until the next film, for alas, here there are Nazis to kill, if they’d only let us. Initially equipped with outmoded but really cool-looking P-40s and allowed only to attack ground installations, the young pilots, like athletes aching for championship competition, yearn to take on the Jerries and prove their worth.
But patience, patience, urges Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s Major Emmanuelle Stance, who commands the men at the Ramitelli air base in Italy. Conscience, father figure and psychologist, by his demeanor alone he stresses that hundreds of years of prejudice can’t be eradicated in one fell swoop of heroics. Still, they must be vigilant and always ready.
Meanwhile, forces are at work. Fighting the good fight for his men, going toe to toe with the white face of reality, Terrence Howard’s Colonel A.J. Bullard advocates the Red Tails’s case, both at command headquarters and back in the U.S. Championing his pilots, he argues for this small but important step in a greater cause doubtless not lost on him.
In camp, the flyboys alternately brood and swagger, sure they’ll never see real action, but confident they’ll make quick work of Hitler and Co. if they ever do. They anxiously pass the time. To this backdrop, Easy and Lightning form the film’s only real character studies. Rather conventional, lightweight portraits, they add little to the film’s impact.
Captain Marty “Easy” Julian, hard driven to succeed by a domineering father, quells his inner demons with one too many drinks. Making it worse, Joe “Lightning” Little, his comrade in arms, drives him nuts by disobeying orders whenever they interfere with the risk-taking that salves his own anxieties. In turn, Joe anguishes over Easy’s alcoholism.
In a sometimes sweet but equally minor sidelight to this scenario, Lightning begins to court a pretty signorina (Daniela Ruah) from the nearby village. Fill in all the usual clichés and what dramatics they may bode. Fact is, intentional or not, the story’s personal relationships play as filler and couldn’t survive without the accompanying air support.
While a less hackneyed subplot would make for a more complete entertainment, it’s apparent that “Red Tails” is not so much a good movie as it is an important movie. When out of desperation those powers that be finally accede, and the squadron is assigned to escort bombers to their crucial targets, we cheer not for the characters, but for equality.
Yet, to remind again, albeit secondary to its social significance, this is a war film…one produced by George Lucas. And as such, expect no less than the best dogfights special effects can create. Thus, whether as a humdinger of a visual iteration for those who know this saga, or as a vital primer for those who do not, “Red Tails” accomplishes its mission.
Red Tails,” rated PG-13, is a Twentieth Century Fox release directed by Anthony Hemingway and stars Nate Parker, David Oyelowo and Terrence Howard. Running time: 120 minutes
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