The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is one of the most inspiring and life-affirming tales our country has ever known. I only wish "Red Tails" could do it justice. I hate to lay the blame on producer George Lucas, but everything I detest about his films lies in the forefront here: an overreliance on digital effects, plot points so predictable you see each one coming from scenes away, and side characters so one-dimensional they’d seem better suited in cartoons.
And this is honestly quite a disappointment to me, because as a basic idea the film sounds pretty excellent. Freshman director Anthony Hemingway doesn’t so much focus on any one main character as he does focus on the group as a cohesive unit, initially reminiscent of the films of Howard Hawks (which often saw men torn between friendship and competition in thoroughly designed workplaces.) And the main personalities here all had me hooked on their charisma; allowing me to forgive the fact that (in classic Lucas fashion) everyone here is a broadly crafted archetype.
Cuba Gooding Jr. wins the loudest acting award (and that’s a tough competition on this set) as the Major, whom we see hilariously chomping down on his pipe in close-up at least 20 separate times over the course of the film. But not far behind is David Oyelowo as fighter pilot Joe "Lightning" Little, the devil-may-care free spirit who acts as the ying to the more responsible "Easy" Julian’s (Nate Parker) yang. And I’d be remiss in leaving out Terrence Howard, whose righteous monologues to a racist major (played by Bryan Cranston) drew multiple rounds of applause at the screening I attended, even if (or perhaps because) it wasn’t honest dialogue so much as it was manipulative preaching.
These guys don’t get much room to act with any range, unfortunately, as "Red Tails" indulges Lucas’ taste for clear-cut good vs. evil stories. He doesn’t treat the Germans as humans so much as he paints them as villains in an afternoon serial. One fighter pilot serves as the de fact antagonist, running into the Airmen on multiple occasions. How do we know he’s the main villain? Because he has a giant scar running down his face, of course. For better or worse, this type of Hollywood logic governs "Red Tails" constantly.
No, I do get what Hemingway and Lucas were trying to achieve here. They’re essentially trying to craft a patriotic, crowd-pleasing war film in the vein of those made in the 1940’s, only they want to do it with the black soldiers who were so unjustly ignored by those original wave of films. Sure, it’s an admirable aspiration, but for whatever it’s worth Spike Lee did the exact same thing 3 years ago with his revisionist fairy tale "Miracle at St. Anna" and no one seemed at all interested in supporting such an idea then. The playful acting, family-friendly dialogue, and colorful design go a long way towards achieving the old-school feel, I will say that. Sadly, all that goodwill is squandered by an unexplainably distracting intrusion by modern digital effects.
Quite frankly, if this film would have been too expensive to make without copious CGI, then they shouldn’t have made it. Every wide shot of these dogfights looks like a videogame, the explosions never for a second look realistic. And that means there’s pretty much no excitement whatsoever to the numerous flight scenes; you’re detached when they should appear primal, immediate, and violent. Personally, I’d have liked to see George make this film 30 years ago, when he would’ve been forced to find practical solutions to the problem. But to director Hemingway’s credit, the most exciting moments that occur in the air deal with when he is building tension to a rough landing, his slow-build style making every reveal more gut-wrenching than the last.
But the intrusion of such blatant special effects immediately eradicates the classical Hollywood charm Hemingway aimed to build, instead leaving me groaning at dogfights that look more like a Playstation game than they do combat footage. "Red Tails" doesn’t belong in the new school or the old school; it doesn’t work as a realistic take on the story of the Airmen or as rousing patriotic entertainment. As excited as I am to see films with this type of subject matter getting made; the audience deserves better.