The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is one that every American should know, and deserving of a great film; unfortunately, this isn’t it. If one were scoring good intentions it would get an A for effort, simply for bringing a portion of this vast saga to theater screens. But the screenplay resembles an earnest junior high school play; that isn’t worthy of the subject or the people behind this endeavor.
Red Tails has been a pet project of George Lucas’ for many years, and as one would expect it is technically flawless. The aerial action, including multiple dogfights and perilous missions over Italy and Germany, is executed with breathtaking precision—all the more amazing when one learns that virtually everything was created by computer wizards, including the interiors of the cockpits that house the leading actors! The “effects” are invisible, and these scenes give the movie moments of great energy and excitement. Such startling realism wouldn’t have been possible even a decade ago.
It’s a shame that the same effort wasn’t lavished on the script, credited to John Ridley and Aaron McGruder. It’s actually reminiscent of a corny Hollywood movie made during the era it depicts, the 1940s, and as such, may play best to youthful audiences who might not recognize its many clichés and shopworn characters. (Wait till you see how the Germans are portrayed!) The film is bolstered by extremely likable performances from the actors who play the key pilots, David Oyelowo, Nate Parker, Ne-Yo, Tristan Wilds, and Michael B. Jordan. Their lively interaction, on the ground and in the air, keeps the film from becoming just a stale history lesson. In the showiest role, as a cocky flyer who won’t listen to orders—and who courts an Italian girl during his off-hours—Oyelowo has the best opportunity to score with moviegoers.
The two best-known members of the cast are saddled with cardboard characters. Cuba Gooding, Jr. plays the calm, pipe-smoking major who oversees day-to-day operations at the squadron’s Italian air base. Terrence Howard is even more one-dimensional as the colonel who battles for respect and recognition with the top Army brass, some of whom cannot disguise their racist attitudes. His part consists almost exclusively of speeches, rather than dialogue.
I would not hesitate to take young people to see this film, if it exposes them to this remarkable piece of American history for the first time. (With a PG-13 rating they will hear an occasional four-letter word.) One could also check out the 1995 HBO movie The Tuskegee Airmen, which boasted a top-notch cast led by Laurence Fishburne, Andre Braugher, Malcolm Jamal-Warner, Courtney B. Vance, Mekhi Phifer, and the very same Cuba Gooding, Jr. But I can’t abandon my critical faculties and recommend Red Tails as a genuinely good movie.