‘Masters of the Air’ Review: Hanks and Spielberg, Back at War

This review contains spoilers for the entire season of “Masters of the Air.”

When Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg created “Band of Brothers” in 2001, in the wake of their partnership on the 1998 film “Saving Private Ryan,” they were the most prominent celebrators of what had become known as the Greatest Generation. Twenty-three years later, with the release of “Masters of the Air,” they’ve become their own greatest generation: upholders of an old-fashioned style of television making, fighting their chosen war over and over again.

Created by John Shiban and John Orloff based on Donald L. Miller’s book of the same title, “Masters of the Air” — which wrapped up its nine-episode run on Apple TV+ this week — was Hanks and Spielberg’s third mini-series saluting American troops in World War II. (Gary Goetzman joined them as executive producer for “The Pacific” in 2010 and for “Masters.”) The latest band of brothers chosen for dramatization and valorization was the 100th Bomb Group, the “bloody Hundredth,” based in England and decimated during its daytime runs over Europe from 1943 to 1945.

The first — and for many viewers, perhaps, sufficient — observation to be made about “Masters” is that the money, more than ever, was right up there on the screen. These producers are Eisenhower-class when it comes to marshaling staff and materiel, as evidenced by the solid five minutes of closing credits, and both the quotidian recreation of an air base in the green English countryside and the special-effects extravaganzas of airborne battle were visually captivating.

Some of the images of mayhem in the skies as the American B-17s and their crews are torn apart by German flak and fighters were the kind that will stick with you even if you would rather they didn’t, like the rain of wings and engines slowly falling after two bombers collide or like the airman sliding through the sky and being halved by a plane’s wing.

But being absorbingly pictorial (the distinguished roster of directors included Cary Joji Fukunaga, Dee Rees, Tim Van Patten and the team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck) only contributed to the sense that the show existed in amber — more of a well-preserved fossil than a compelling drama. You could argue that this was the inevitable result of trying to celebrate 1940s-style patriotism one time too many. But the issues with “Masters” are artistic rather than cultural or political or factual.

In condensing Miller’s broad-ranging history, while also converting it into a drama extending over nearly eight hours, Orloff and Shiban ended up with an ungainly, disjointed story that never gave itself the time or the space to grow. “Masters” felt like a catalog of war movie genres — the home-front melodrama, the aerial-combat blockbuster, the P.O.W. escape adventure, the behind-enemy-lines spy thriller, the racial-harmony drama — strung together in fealty to actual events but with disregard for dramatic development.

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