Judge Gordon Sullivan is glad when history is told by good actors.
Our review of The Tuskegee Airmen, published May 9th, 2001, is also available.
"Why would you fly for a country that thanks you by lynching you?"—A-Train (Cuba Gooding, Jr.)
I've always been skeptical of the "Greatest Generation" tag. Yes, I'll give out some credit for defeating Hitler, but this is also the same generation that dropped the Bomb in Japan and started the Cold War, arguably the period in which humanity has come closest to annihilating itself since the first fight after we came out of the trees. It's also the generation that took almost twenty years to give full voting rights to African-Americans who fought in the war and end segregation with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Despite the fact that thousands of African-Americans fought valiantly on the side of the Allies, they came home to rampant discrimination, and even the passing of the Civil Rights Act was actively and violently opposed by many Americans. The tragedy of this inequality is brought home all the more forcefully with a film like The Tuskegee Airmen, which looks at the U.S. Army's first crop of black pilots during World War II. Despite discrimination and hardship, the men of 332nd Fighter Group not only survived, but thrived in the European combat theater. Though far from HBO's best historical effort, The Tuskegee Airmen documents an important part of American history with some fine performances.
Facts of the Case
In 1941 (before the bombing of Pearl Harbor), the 99th Pursuit Squadron was created. It would be the first group of African-American pilots allowed in the U.S. Army Air Corps. We follow the first group of pilots, focusing primarily on Hannibal Lee (Laurence Fishburne, The Matrix). We watch as they are trained before heading off to Africa and an eventual stationing as bomber escorts.
The Tuskegee Airmen was released in 1995, just a mere three years before Saving Private Ryan and six years before Band of Brothers. It's amazing what can change in just a few short years. Saving Private Ryan revolutionized the depiction of World War II. No longer were the Nazis monolithic villains who perpetrated a kind of bloodless violence on Allied soldiers. Similarly, Band of Brothers took Spielberg's innovations in WWII storytelling and applied them to an even more historically accurate and detailed war experience. Both are examples of high-water marks in cinematic depictions of the war.
I bring up these other two examples to show how different—and in some ways how ancient—The Tuskegee Airmen feels. In contrast to Band of Brothers, which follows actual characters based on a book by a survivor, Tuskegee features a cast of composite characters and is written by screenwriters who have no apparent connection to the airmen. What that means in practical terms is that these men don't feel like fully fleshed out historical people. They come to the Tuskegee airfield to learn how to fly, they learn how to fly, and then go off to war. They're determined at the start, and they end the film that way as well. Sure, along the way they learn new things and stand up to racism, but that doesn't mean they really change. The film doesn't really explore why these men want to be pilots, nor does it give them a mental life outside of their skills in the air. That means that in places the film can feel like a generic history lesson with some famous faces rather than a compelling drama about a group of men facing terrible odds before triumphing. Though a character asks why they fight for a country that thanks them by lynching them, the film doesn't do enough to explore these men and their motivations.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This might make The Tuskegee Airmen sound like a bad film; it's not. Several aspects keep the film from feeling like a chore.
The first is the historical significance of the subject. Even if I think the story could be better told, the achievements and struggles of the 332nd Fighter Group are amazing. Fighter technology, racism in the ranks, and the plain old dangers of war are all arrayed against these men and yet so many of them not only survived but thrived. It's a story of triumph in the face of adversity, and even if it would be more compelling if it used a Band of Brothers-style approach, it's still compelling as-is.
The actors really bring their A-game for these roles. Laurence Fishburne is the real center of the cast. We first see his character during the credits as a young boy running after a low-flying plane. Though he's a pre-med student, he joins the Air Corps to fly. Fishburne plays him as stoical but consumed with a passion for flying. Cuba Gooding Jr. plays his opposite, A-Train, with an easygoing charm that's infections. Christopher McDonald deserves a shout-out for playing the thankless role of the racist Army major forced to train a group of African-American recruits.
The film also gets the flying sequences right. The Tuskegee Airmen were famed for their flight prowess, and there are a lot of excellent flying sequences in the film. I'm no expert on aviation history, but the planes look fairly accurate, and they're obviously flown by professionals. One of the interesting choices the filmmakers made was to mix contemporary footage of the actors in the cockpits with contemporary footage of someone flying the plane and archival footage from actual WWII-era cockpits. It's an interesting mix that keeps the flying sequences compelling while letting their actors do their work in the air.
HBO's The Tuskegee Airmen (Blu-ray) is a bit of a mixed bag. The 1.78:1/1080p AVC-encoded image looks a little soft. Part of that is surely intentional, but it's also possible some noise reduction was applied a little too vigorously. Color rendition maintains the slightly muted look of the film, and the night sequences are impressively dark. It's a highly watchable transfer, especially for a sixteen-year-old TV movie, but it's not a reference disc. Similarly, the 5.1 surround track has clear dialogue, but the surrounds weren't used as much as I would have expected during flying sequences. The disc is presented in a preside digibook format, in a hard cardboard "book." Inside there's a short piece on the exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen along with photographs of both the actual men and their acting counterparts.
The Tuskegee Airmen is an interesting document of an important historical period, though to contemporary viewers weaned on more dynamic portrayals of the second World War it will likely look dated. An almost extra-less release with an okay audiovisual presentation means a rental is recommended for most fans of the actors. Only diehard WWII junkies will likely add this to their collection.
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