By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
If only the filmmakers telling this story were as high-flying and ambitious as the heroic characters their movie celebrates.
Red Tails is an inspired-by-real-events historical drama about the Tuskegee Airmen, the first group of African-American fighter pilots in the United States’ armed forces, formally known as the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the Army Air Corps.
The racially themed action-adventure story is better when it’s literally up in the air than when it’s down on the ground, because too much of what takes place down on the ground is metaphorically up in the air.
The film focuses on the struggles and action of the 332nd Fighter Group in Italy and Sicily, as they escort World War II bombers across Europe and fly missions over Germany with their tails painted red, which gave them a nickname and their movie a title.
In the segregated army of the period, what these kept-on-the-ground pilots are fighting for, as they overcome obstacle after obstacle, is the ironic chance to sacrifice their lives for a country whose people continue to display bigotry and discrimination against them.
They are thus invited to fight Nazis while they’re still fighting segregation.
When the war in Europe takes an extensive toll, Army brass decides in 1944 — just when the courageous young African-American men are about to be shipped back home — to let these as-yet untested military aviators in the experimental Tuskegee training program take off.
Terrence Howard (who played a Tuskegee pilot in Hart’s War) and Cuba Gooding Jr. (who starred as a fighter pilot in the 1995 HBO telemovie The Tuskegee Airmen) play the mentors of the young top guns. Gooding is Maj. Emanuel Stance, a senior trainer, while Howard plays bureaucracy-fighting and racism-opposing Col. AJ Bullard (loosely based on Cmdr. Benjamin Oliver Davis Jr., one of the first few African-Americans to graduate from West Point).
Anthony Hemingway, an experienced TV director making his feature-film debut, works from a blandly problematic screenplay by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder that has too many shapeless scenes, not enough dramatic energy, and far too many lines that read like tentative first-draft stabs that someone forgot to spruce up later.
Although the plot meanders, Hemingway makes use of some splendid computer-generated special effects in the battle segments. But verisimilitude largely escapes him.
Furthermore, executive producer George Lucas seems to have his fingerprints all over this one, and that’s not necessarily a good thing, even though he was admirably instrumental in getting this well intentioned, long-gestating project to fruition.
During the extended aerial-dogfight sequences, it sometimes seems as if Lucas is determined to relive his Star Wars climax over and over again, at the expense of what should be the film’s central theme. Every time the film veers in an aerial-fight video-game direction, it reduces its impact.
The actors — including Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, and Tristan Wilds as young fighter pilots — do okay, although their exuberant behavior during combat seems comic-book shallow and unrealistic, both individually and collectively. Perhaps their director was too busy choreographing action to notice the acting.
Only Howard, in his handful of stirring moments, shows us what could have been with a more inspired approach.
So we’ll fly 2 stars out of 4 for Red Tails, a mediocre movie about the Tuskegee Airmen, who deserve a much better one.