By Brian Lafferty
January 20, 2012 (San Diego) – If you’re looking for a serious, authentic, and realistic portrayal of the Tuskegee Airmen, Red Tails isn’t it. Instead, you’ll get a fully romanticized, pure escapist account that isn’t flawless but is entertaining. I embraced the film’s adventurism, machismo, and old-fashioned approach. Given that Red Tails is George Lucas’ most recent pet project, it’s unreasonable to expect realism and grit.
The year is 1944 and the setting is Italy. A squadron of African American pilots, known as the Tuskegee Airmen, is frustrated with segregation in the military. They’re forced to stay on the ground instead of fighting for their country. They are then given an opportunity to truly contribute to the war effort by escorting and protecting bombers from the Germans.
The script is the film’s weakest area. The characters are two-dimensional. The Germans are evil, faceless men that spout dialogue such as, “Show no mercy” and, “Die you foolish African!” The characters’ dialogue contains little subtext. Examples include, “I want to…” and “I don’t like…”
One of the things that suffers the most from Red Tails' escapist, romanticized approach is the film’s portrayal of racism, which leaves a lot to be desired. Everybody doubts the Red Tails’ abilities in aerial combat. There’s some racist remarks and tension. The problem isn’t that it’s too light or that it isn’t strong enough. There’s not a lot of depth to the characters, so consequently there’s not a lot of depth to the prejudice. People are prejudiced for the sake of being prejudiced.
The filmmakers may have skimped on the script, but they certainly don’t do the same with the visuals. The cinematography doesn’t look special until you look deep. There, you will find brownish colors and tones, like a weathered military uniform. In keeping with the Indiana Jones-cum-Star Wars tone, cinematographer John B. Aronson uses soft lighting that gives it an idealized 1940s look.
The highlights of Red Tails are the flight sequences. Going in, I expected to be bored. Computer generated planes rarely have the same impact as real ones. There’s something authentic and dramatic about real planes when they whoosh past the screen or when the camera captures the majestic view from the cockpit. Just watch Top Gun, which used real fighter jets and real aerial sequences, with mouth-gaping results.
The flight sequences in Red Tails met the burden of believability. In the back of my mind I knew they were devised by computers. It’s not a problem if the digital effects artists know how to manufacture exciting combat sequences. The dogfights aren’t epic or as thrilling as I wanted them to be, although they were choreographed well enough to hold my interest.
In one sequence, Joe Little and a few others destroy a German base. Later, Joe single handedly destroys a German warship. The camera glides majestically over the ship as he fires. The explosions don’t look like standard ones. They are arranged and created in a way that drew my eyes to them like a tractor beam. There aren’t many explosions and, to my surprise, there aren’t a lot of special effects. The effects that do show up are explosive without barraging the eardrums.
The shots in these sequences are coherently pieced together. Rather than cut-cut-cut, it’s cut, medium take, cut, shorter take, cut, etc. The rhythm is such that it gives a semi-panicked sense of the gravity of combat but gives the audience lots of time to follow and be awed by the action.
Red Tails is not a great movie. It’s just an OK film. It doesn’t give any new insight into the Tuskegee Airmen and it doesn’t go deep into anything historical. As an action and adventure picture, it works.
Red Tails is now playing in local theaters.
A 20th Century Fox release. Director: Anthony Hemingway. Screenplay: John Ridley (story and screenplay) and Aaron McGruder (screenplay). Original Music: Terence Blanchard. Cinematography: John B. Aronson. Cast: Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, Bryan Cranston, Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Tristan Wilds, Daniela Ruah, Ryan Early, Method Man, and Kevin Phillips.