Red Tails is rousing, brave, extremely well intentioned, a throwback, and historically revisionist. It’s the tale of the Tuskegee Airmen, African-American fighter pilots in World War II.
According to producer George Lucas, the film was to be a throwback to the 1940’s war stories of Our Brave Fighting Men. Lucas wanted to create a stirring, patriotic, inspirational film aimed at teenage boys. In Red Tails, he partially succeeded.
Being retro is apparently a recent trend: see The Artist, War Horse and Hugo. Happily, Lucas doesn’t go retro with the action sequences, which are by far the most exciting part of the film, though they occasionally border on stretching our disbelief too far. The tension of the battles, the danger and beauty of planes moving with both power and grace—these are WWII movie staples that are wondrously re-imagined and modernized with every digital effect at Lucas’ disposal.
But being retro doesn’t have to mean being second-rate, and the dialogue of those scenes is the weak link of the action sequences. If Lucas or director Anthony Hemingway (“The Wire”) were trying to replicate the studio acting styles of the actors during the war years, it didn’t work. The conversations in the air don’t come off as parts of a whole but as independent line readings that barely connect with what comes before or after. It’s a lesson in the power of editing that we’re even partially convinced that these guys are actually speaking to each other. We may groan at some of the acting of the studio era when we view them today, but for the most part, the acting was of a piece with the rest of the film. Here, it’s not corny-but-OK, but simply barely better than a college play. State-of-the-art effects and unconvincing acting don’t mix well.
It doesn’t get much better on the ground. The “name actors”—Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard and Bryan Cranston among them—are fine, though no one stands out. Gooding is a strange combination of late Donald Crisp, Barry Fitzgerald and Grandpappy Amos of “The Real McCoys,” and Howard just wins the battle over his struggle against that voice of his and comes off as close to a real character as the film gets. The rest of the crew may be fine actors, either someday or even now, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it here. Howard gets the best line however, delivering the best “don’t care” line since Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive.
There is a scene that sets this apart from other war films, and from most other films in general. For once in a Hollywood film, there is a heartfelt, real prayer that resonates with faith and meaning. I don’t know the spiritual backgrounds of the key players here, but someone involved in this endeavor has done some real and serious praying. And to you I say thanks.
Some are lamenting that the skilled real airmen are not getting their just due here, as the film is softened around the edges, doesn’t go too deep, and is very PG-13. In that regard, the film is as much of a missed opportunity as The Iron Lady. But the goal here is to be rousing, not deep or artful, or even precisely accurate historically; in that regard, this may well be the best cinematic tribute movie history will eventually crown. Some are arguing that the film is brave because it’s an all-black action film that no studio seemed to want, and yet others are arguing that it soft-pedals the depth of racial hatred and obstacles the airmen had to endure. The “let me buy you a drink” bar scene, where black and white officers almost break into “I’d like to teach the world to sing…,” is admittedly a flight of fancy (pun intended); it manages to come off as a revisionist dream about what ought to have happened. But by not highlighting the depths of racial hatred and institutional bigotry and discrimination, the film is able to concentrate instead on these men in this unit at this point in time in this particular war. Red Tails is not a filmic screed on racism, nor a documentary. It’s an uneven, at times poorly acted action film that turns the Tuskegee Airmen into exciting heroes. Maybe, in the long run, that will be the unit’s most fitting homage.