Monday, January 23, 2012

Wings of Glory: RED TAILS

Red Tails is a creaky, rickety World War II movie. Those are hardly rare, but what makes this one especially disappointing is the way it dives headfirst into one aspect of the war that is too rarely considered and then finds nothing new to say about it, or even entertaining ways to say the old things. The film concerns itself with telling the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, an all black squadron of fighter pilots during a time in which the official policy of the United States Army was that African Americans were unfit for combat based on nothing more than the color of their skin.

The film starts with the Airmen flying mostly peaceful patrols far from the front lines. They’re not allowed in situations for which dogfights might be a necessity, which means they’re denied the chance to go wing-to-wing with German fighters. They’re getting antsy. We meet a handful of the pilots, our ensemble of protagonists, each with their own snappy nickname. There’s Easy (Nate Parker), Lightning (David Oyelowo), Ray Gun (Tristan Wilds), Winky (Leslie Odom Jr.), Neon (Kevin Phillips), Sticks (Cliff Smith), Smoky (Ne-Yo), and Deke (Marcus T. Paulk). They’re personalities more than characters, which is disappointing, but it’s the kind of surface-level American cross-section of types that comes with the middling WWII movie territory.

They’re good pilots. Some of them are even great pilots. We first meet them flying across the fields of Italy running a routine patrol. They’ve only blown up one little Nazi truck when they cross paths with an innocent-looking train that becomes a whole lot less innocent when Nazi anti-aircraft guns in the back car open fire. They dip down and manage to not only derail the train, but to blow it up as well. But it’s all so unsatisfying. How embarrassing to be simply “shooting traffic,” as one pilot grumbles. Their commanders agree. Through the commander of their base in Italy (Cuba Gooding Jr.) to a D.C. liaison (Terrence Howard), the Airmen make their case to the stubborn, prejudiced brass.

Following the true story insofar as it affords the potential for aerial combat, the script by John Ridley (with extra, unfortunately rather personality free work from Boondocks writer/creator Aaron McGruder) pounds half-heartedly through some flavorless cardboard drama on the ground to get these heroes from takeoff to takeoff. Everything between the landings seems tossed aside and half-hearted, conflicts between characters that bubble up in a line of dialogue and disappear entirely forgotten for large periods of time. It’s strange for a movie so thin to feel overstuffed but when a subplot that’s essentially a remake of The Great Escape involves only one character we’ve previously met and lasts all of two-and-a-half scenes, it’s hard to feel otherwise.

There’s rich story potential to be mined here, but the movie skips across the surface of deeper resonance on its way to find visceral heroics. A fair amount of the movie contains clichéd fighter pilot dialogue shouted over the roar of plane engines. Anthony Hemingway, who has directed a handful of episodes in several different recent series of note (including The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, and Community), is sitting in the director’s chair and, though he’s no good at figuring out how to outmaneuver the blockheaded clichés of the script, he’s certainly good at figuring out how to stay out of the way of the Industrial Light and Magic CGI battles in the sky. 

It’s here that the influence of producer George Lucas (who, to his credit, has tried out of his passion for this under-told story to get this film made for decades before finally financing it himself) is most clearly felt. The way these planes fly about shooting at each other, with routine fighter pilot patter howling over the roar of propellers and gunfire feels awfully reminiscent of X-Wings and TIE Fighters zapping at each other in the dark of space. It’s sad to say that those Star Wars space battles are significantly more thrilling than these based-on-a-true-story dogfights, but there you have it.

The film feels weirdly inconsequential with a storyline that zips off in too many directions to really make an impact. But the look of the film is a problem too. Shot on digital in a terrible use of the medium, the image is weirdly bright and artificial and entirely textureless. It’s naturally void of the nuance of film grain but without satisfactorily compensating for it by using the unique visual properties of digital a la the recent work of Michael Mann, David Fincher, and Steven Soderbergh (whose Haywire is probably playing the next auditorium over and definitely making far better use of digital camerawork).

I was rooting for this movie. It gives me no pleasure to write this. Walking out of the theater, my dissatisfaction made me sad. All the material was in place for a great fun throwback: a terrific story, a fine cast, and a great special effects company. But the filmmakers simply failed to crack the story’s difficulties. The film lacks shape and, though it’s oddly simple and perhaps perversely upbeat, it lacks the momentum and the visceral filmmaking power of the best war films. Truffaut once said that it was hard to make an anti-war film because war looks inherently exciting on film. Not this one. It tries its hardest, and succeeds from time to time, but the thing never coheres one way or the other, or at all.

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