A film review by Craig J. Koban January 25, 2012


2012, PG-13, 125 mins.


Col. A.J. Bullard Terrence Howard / Major Stance Cuba Gooding Jr. / Maj. Mortamus Bryan Cranston / Ryan Joshua Dallas / Sofia Daniela Ruah / Joe Little David Oyelowo / General Luntz Gerald McRaney / Andrew Salem Ne-Yo

Directed by Anthony Hemingway  Written by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder.

The George Lucas financed and produced (and apparently ghost co-directed) RED TAILS is history as told through the pages of a 70-year-old comic book.  There is no doubt that the flannel-shirted one’s production – his first since 1994 that does not have STAR WARS or INDIANA JONES in its title – contains his lifelong admiration for its subject: the Tuskegee Airmen, the very first all-African American World War II pilot squadron that served in largely segregated units during the conflict.  The problem with RED TAILS is not with Lucas’ noble yearning to shed light on this very important piece of war and social history; the real issue on display is that the film takes a great and significant fact-based story and reduces it to one-dimensional characters, maudlin war film clichés, and a narrative that takes way, way too many scattershot detours.  This is a would-be great war film trapped in a mediocre shell. 

A perpetual history enthusiast, Lucas has always been enamored with the sobering tale of the Tuskegee Airmen, a rag tag group of American fighter pilots who unfortunately had to fight a different type of psychological war beyond the physical battles of WWII for acceptance as equals in a largely white military.  During the war effort these men of the 332nd Fighter Group were delegated to essentially janitorial missions: mop-up exercises that involved gunning down munitions trucks and trains.  They were initially never given an opportunity to participate in serious missions against Germany and, in the process, had to battle the inherent racism that permeated the military's highest ranks.  When they were finally given their due respect and given missions as bomber escorts in Europe, they were incomparable for their skill and success and became highly decorated.  These men were courageous, dealt with internal and external tyranny, and gave their lives for their country.  Their story needs and deserves to be heard. 

I just wished that Lucas and his screenwriters – John Ridley and Aaron McGruder – didn’t reduce such a powerfully sobering story to borderline cornball melodrama.   To be fair, the writing tandem does capture the minutia of how the Corps did whatever they could to keep black pilots from flying alongside their white comrades, not to mention how the Airmen were forced to partake in missions with substandard planes.  The writers also evoke the personal frustrations of men of the 332nd and how they battled through adversity to achieve self-respect and dignity as servicemen.  RED TAILS pays adequate homage to these important men, but the manner with which it does so is almost subverts the impact and significance of the overall message. 

The film follows the tales of a group of four Airmen (that are paradoxically defined by a series of stereotypical war character traits): squadron leader Marty “Easy” Julian (Nate Parker); the hot-headed Joe “Lightning” Little (David Oyelowo); the sarcastic joker of the group, Samuel “Joker” George (Elijah Kelley) and the obligatory “baby” of the group, Ray “Junior” Gannon (Tristan Wilds).  Above them all are other run-of-the-mill military types, like Major Emanuel Stance (the perpetually pipe-chewing Cuba Gooding Jr.) and the commanding officer, Col. A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) whom is ultimately the key figure that gets the Airmen off the ground and into the skies, despite the intense reservations of the openly racist Maj. Mortamus (the woefully underused Bryan Cranston).  Every line of dialogue from the typically talented Howard seems cut from every inspirational speech cliché that has ever existed before in a movie; Bullard is like a living, breathing army recruitment and civil rights advocate poster. 



Once the 332nd Airmen are given the okay to officially launch on the front lines as protection for bomber pilots, they begin to make a name for themselves as highly skilled and brave pilots that slowly (or in this film’s case, extremely and unrealistically quickly) gain the respect of their fellow white officers.  They become heroes of the war during a time when Jim Crow denied them of their essential human rights, and the uneasiness of serving in the military when death could be a likely outcome alongside fighting the racial injustice of the military begins to take its toll. 

It’s of no surprise that the real stars of RED TAILS are its production values and visual effects in recreating not only the look of the WWII camps, but also in evoking the epically mounted aerial dogfights that the Airmen participated in during the conflict.  Being completely Lucas-financed (apparently $100 million for production and advertising), no expense was spared in squarely and immediately immersing audiences in the startling verisimilitude of its air battles.  Using state-of-the-art CGI, virtuoso green screen work, and the actors thanklessly performing to what must have been nothing, RED TAILS creates some of the most propulsive, spectacular, exhilarating, and technologically dazzling aerial maneuvers ever committed to film.  The film is always captivating as a spellbindingly skilful exercise in grand-scale movie fakery. 

Yet, the human-interest story is suffocated by the film’s adherence in being a visual joyride first and foremost.  The dogfights are important, to be sure, but of more central importance was the emotionally heartrending strife of the Airmen on the ground.  It’s hard to invest in these men when they are all typified in the film by their one-dimensionally ham-invested personality quirks (i.e. – one’s a drunk, one’s a prankster, one’s a daredevil, etc.) and it's amazing, in hindsight, that the acting entourage assembled here manages to infuse some melancholic gravitas into their otherwise stiffly written characters.  The enemies they fight don't fare better, as they're portrayed thinly as unemotional monsters from an adventure serial: One German specifically, a pilot nicknamed “Pretty Boy” (Lars van Riesen) utters subtitled lines like “My God, those pilots are African!” and “Show the Africans no mercy!”  The audience I was with laughed at these groan-inducing proclamations, which I think was the unintentional effect. 

RED TAILS also gets derailed by too many ill-focused detours and subplots, one involving a horribly underwritten love story between Lightning’s romancing of a beautiful Italian girl that seems pathetically shoehorned into the narrative and an even greater miscalculated storyline involving Junior’s capture and interment in a German POW camp.  Junior’s experiences at the camp in question are almost like regrettable afterthoughts in the film instead of being a worthwhile inclusion as part of a cohesive overall plot.  The remaining hour of RED TAILS seems to arbitrarily and frequently meander from one incongruent scene to the next to the point where you feel like you watching a first cut of a film instead of a final, meticulously scrutinized product. 

Lucas chose the competent Anthony Hemmingway as RED TAILS’ director – veteran of TV’s THE WIRE, making his feature film debut – but reports have indicated that Lucas himself took over reshoots when Hemmingway was not available.  On Lucas’ intended levels of giving viewers an old-fashioned tale of patriotism, war heroism, and battle glory through the veneer of a populist action film, then I guess that RED TAILS is successful.  There’s also no questioning the film’s technological merits (it constantly aspires for epic grandness with its aerial skirmishes) and willingness to viscerally astound and entertain.  Lucas and company deserve props for making a film about a worthy and oftentimes forgotten story about the Airmen’s struggles and sacrifices (and as for Lucas, not too many white filmmakers would spend a hundred million dollars of their own money to finance an all-black cast and story-centric war film).  Yet, RED TAILS never elevates itself beyond that of a tritely disposable war melodrama made up of so many interchangeable and overused parts.  This film is all heart and no discipline. 

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