Red Tails - SideReel Review
It’s a soldier’s duty to display bravery in the face of great adversity, and as black Americans fighting tyranny in Europe while still wrestling with oppression and ignorance back home, the courage displayed by the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II was nothing short of superhuman. Sadly, the contributions these skilled airmen made to the war effort have often been ignored by the history books. In Red Tails, producer George Lucas and director Anthony Hemingway aim to correct that oversight. Together with screenwriters John Ridley and Aaron McGruder, they do a commendable job of delivering exhilarating dogfights as the pilots take to the skies and earnest drama as they strive to shatter stereotypes.
In the fire and chaos of World War II, the U.S. military recruits a fearless group of black fighter pilots to help reclaim the skies over Europe. But as the Tuskegee Airmen dream of blasting "Jerries" out of the skies, Col. William Mortamus (Bryan Cranston) and the rest of the brass back home keep them far away from the front lines, often forcing them to fly incidental missions that offer little chance of seeing real action. Meanwhile, Col. A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) and Maj. Emanuelle Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.), knowing the full potential of the men under their command, lobby tirelessly to give their pilots a shot at true glory. Their efforts eventually pay off handsomely when the Tuskegee Airmen are enlisted to offer support for a crucial beach landing and they perform above and beyond the call of duty. Subsequently rewarded with an increasingly dangerous series of missions, the pilots proudly defend freedom from the clouds while simultaneously defending their honor to a government that previously wrote them off due to nothing more than the color of their skin. Meanwhile, womanizing ace Joe "Lightning" Little (David Oyelowo) finds a reason to settle down, new arrival Ray "Junior" Gannon (Tristan Wilds) takes his first steps toward manhood, and air commander Martin "Easy" Julian (Nate Parker) wrestles with his conscience (and the bottle) while making the tough decisions that will determine the fates of everyone in his squadron.
Dropping us right in the middle of an intense dogfight as the film opens (the first line of English dialogue is "Germans! Let’s get ‘em!"), scribes Ridley and McGruder prove right away that they know what viewers want out of a movie about fighter pilots. And with shots of flaming warplanes shredded by bullets and disintegrating midair, Hemingway wastes no time showing us that he’s got the talent and vision to deliver an exciting action sequence.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers can’t seem to pull off a smooth landing, and though the human drama of Red Tails is managed with a fairly even hand, the script strays into too many distracting side plots to keep the story moving at a satisfying pace. A tender romance between Lightning and a pretty Italian woman is ultimately underdeveloped and shoehorned in, and while numerous scenes of comic relief involving the airmen bickering playfully with their cantankerous mechanic succeed in personalizing the characters, they frequently bring the momentum of the film to a grinding halt. Other asides, such as the pilots bonding with a group of white officers after defending their bombers in the sky and Col. Bullard’s interactions with his superiors, help demonstrate the social progress that the airmen’s heroics inspired, but ultimately feel too abbreviated to have any real dramatic impact.
Performances, meanwhile, range from solid (Howard, Oyelowo, and Parker in particular stand out) to slightly silly (someone should have known better than to let Gooding Jr. use a pipe as a prop), though in respect to the actors portraying the young pilots, their relative inexperience in front of the cameras often contributes to the ensemble’s youthful charm. But once the fighter pilots take flight and the action begins, the more problematic components of Red Tails often fade into the distance. And thanks to a plot that necessitates numerous dynamic dogfight sequences as the airmen attempt to prove their worth to racist commanders (even fighting German jets in the intense climax), the film soars just high enough to avoid the heavy artillery of acute criticism to deliver a thrilling look at an oft-neglected chapter of American history.