Reviews in the Nick of Time: Red Tails

by wjw on February 2, 2012

I was intrigued when I’d heard that George Lucas believed in this movie so much that he financed it himself.  Apparently the Hollywood studios— staffed of course by all those Hollywood liberals we hear so much about— declined to finance a war epic about black people.

I was very impressed that Lucas was so committed to this movie.  And then I remembered that the last movie he believed in this much was Howard the Duck.

Well, Red Tails is no Howard the Duck.  Unfortunately it’s not Saving Private Ryan, either.

It’s a slightly goofy, old-fashioned war epic, full of patriotism, heroics, swelling music, and good feeling.  It’s the sort of movie where an American pilot might say, “Take that, Mr. Hitler!” and a German might snarl, “Now you die, foolish American!” If it wasn’t for the massive CGI and the complexion of the cast, this could have been a movie released in 1944.

The actors are great.  The actors are having a good time with each other, and we can’t help but enjoy their enjoyment. (And they should be having a good time.  This movie is a reunion for half the cast of The Wire— and of course the director, Anthony Hemingway, was on The Wire, too.)

The air combat scenes are awesome.  It’s all CGI, but it’s so good you can see the rivets on the planes.  And Lucas is ingenious enough to have his computer-generated camera duplicate the sorts of flaws that an actual physical camera might encounter, as for example what happens when it gets pointed into the sun.

I’m not sure I’d consider the air tactics authentic.  I doubt you can actually out-turn a Me-109 with a P-40 . . . but what the hell, I’m sure that happened in movies made in 1944, and that’s the model Lucas is working from.

The problem of the movie is that Lucas is so committed to his feel-good epic that the good vibrations get in the way of any actual drama.

Our two principal heroes are Easy (Nate Parker) and Lightning (David Oyelowo, who I’m encountering for the second time this week, having just heard him doing a terrific job of reading John le Carré’s less-than-brilliant book).  Both Easy and Lightning— whose nicknames are not accidental— have some serious problems.

Easy is an alcoholic who can’t climb into his plane without slamming down half a pint of whiskey first.  But there really aren’t any consequences to his addiction— he never seems impaired, and he never makes any bad decisions.  (Though he does get blamed for a crash that wasn’t his fault.)   So his alcoholism isn’t a tragedy or even a problem, it’s just a quirk.

Lightning is the Angry Guy— didactically, he’s sort of Malcolm X to his superiors’ MLK.  And he’s also Crazy Guy— he’s the maverick who disobeys orders, brilliantly uses unorthodox tactics to shoot up the enemy, and leads his men into extreme danger only to extricate them, and himself, with genius to spare.

Except that there are no consequences to his anger, except for a couple days in the guardhouse for clocking a racist officer.  And he’s only angry when the script calls for it: the rest of the time he’s charming and mellow.  There are no consequences to his disobedience of orders, and nobody ever dies because of his reckless tactics.  Angry and Crazy are quirks, not problems.

As for the guy who crashes, he survives though severely burned.  But we never feel his pain, or his awakening to his new condition . . . he’s just quietly shipped home, and if he’s mad or angry or in pain, it happens somewhere else.

If I’d had a turn at the script, I’d have had Easy screw up while drunk, and I’d have had Lightning getting a bunch of his followers killed, and I’d have had the crashed pilot wake up to the fact that he’s going to be disfigured for the rest of his life.  But Lucas doesn’t do that, because this movie is all about feeling good, and even when characters die, they die triumphantly.

I have no beef with feel-good movies, but I have to wonder why the characters were saddled with these problems when the movie wasn’t going to deal with them.

Still, you can’t feel bad about this film.  It’s fun to watch, it’s like all those old black-and-white movies like Dawn Patrol and Flying Tigers and Flying Leathernecks on which it was obviously modeled.  The CGI is great.  The cast is obviously having a good time.

And while the box office hasn’t been spectacular, it’s likely that George Lucas will earn his money back.

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