It may come as no surprise to read that the new film from George Lucas – WWII aerial drama Red Tails – is more sure-footed in the exciting dogfight combat scenes than it is on the tarmac. It sucks when conventional wisdom is proven to be true – it’d have been much more interesting to be able to say that producer Lucas and director Anthony Hemingway have exceeded expectations – but the film is exactly what you’d expect: a mix of amazing CGI planes and the cliche, thinly defined pilots who fly them. There’s the alcoholic one (Nate Parker), the undisciplined but brilliant ace (David Oyelowo), the eager-to-please rookie (Tristan Wilds), and their proud, faultlessly noble superiors (Cuba Gooding, Jr and Terrence Howard), but if you’ve seen a movie before you’ll instantly figure out where all these guys are headed, along with what you’re supposed to think and feel, every step of the way.
What seems certain is that Red Tails is at least steeped in good intentions from Lucas and (to the disappointment of cynics) these apparently pre-date post-Jar Jar accusations of racism. This all-black cast real-life story of how a group of African American fliers became the most celebrated and proficient combat pilots during the Second World War is more than just a convenient, decade-late apology from a the Star Wars creator. In fact he’s stated many times over the years that the story of the barrier-breaking Tuskegee Airmen is one he’s been itching to tell for several decades. And there is evidence to back this up, not least in the fact that so much of his original space opera trilogy seems informed by a love of WWII era dogfights and these underdog airmen in particular – with the rebel starfighter pilots even calling themselves Red One, Red Two and so on. Appropriately enough, the action scenes are among the finest depictions of aerial combat since the original Star Wars movies.
The film’s problems can be found in the campy, Boy’s Own simplicity of it all – which is, in fairness, the Lucasfilm house style. As you might have gathered from the awesome retro styling of the theatrical poster, there is a Saturday matinee, Indiana Jones feel to proceedings: Nazi pilots are uncomplicatedly evil men (chief among them being Lars van Riesen’s preposterous, scar-faced baddie) and, gee whiz, is it cause for celebration when they explode. This naivete is maybe charming in an Indy adventure, or something like Captain America, but transposed onto real-life events, in a film verging on biography, it seems in poor taste. This is also the first straight war movie in a long time in which young men seem desperate to get to the front and in which the filmmakers remain staunchly uncritical of that ambition from beginning to end. Especially given that their ultimate, potentially war-ending mission – acting as disposable cannon fodder protecting white-piloted bombers – is not too far removed from a scene many will recall from the South Park movie.
I’m not doubting for a second the heroism of the real-life Tuskegee pilots, or their role in the hard fought battle for civil rights, but it seems only respectful that a movie celebrating real WWII airmen should have more nuance and explore a more complex version of morality than might be expected from a gung-ho 1940s comic strip. This is made more problematic by a running time that exceeds two hours, as the time we spend with the pilots outstrips the filmmakers’ apparent interest in them. Red Tails might have been a success with more emphasis on hi-octane dogfights and thirty minutes trimmed off the length, or with a richer, more humane attempt at drama. As it stands the best Lucasfilm can say about Red Tails is that it isn’t another Howard the Duck or Radioland Murders level fiasco. No, with its technical proficiency and capable cast of actors, it’s much less interesting than that.
Red Tails is on general release in the UK from June 6th.