Monday, January 23, 2012

War Games

Well, it’s finally here. After twenty-three years, George Lucas has at last released Red Tails, his film celebrating the Tuskegee Airmen, a squadron of all-black fighter pilots who flew over Europe in World War II and are relative unknown in this day and age. In a recent interview on John Stewart’s The Daily Show, Lucas (who is credited as the film’s executive producer) revealed that in fact the reason it took so long to make Red Tails was in fact due to the fact that major movie studios balked at financing it, not knowing how to promote the title to an overseas audience, from which a movie will make about sixty percent of its profit. After so long a time, it’s remarkable that it was finally made, but is it true? Is a film like Red Tails not as marketable when other war films can all but walk away with guaranteed grosses? It wasn’t all that long ago that Saving Private Ryan and Pearl Harbor came in and capitalized on major WWII pride to the tune of a combined $400 million. Saving Private Ryan especially has resonated, to the tune of eleven Academy Award nominations, including a Best Director award for Steven Spielberg. But did those films deserve that level of appreciation, and is there really that much difference between Red Tails and the enjoyable but far overrated Ryan?

Oh, yeah, he's a star
Well, one difference would be each film’s plots. While Saving Private Ryan focused on an obscure war rule to set up a tale of men versus long odds, Red Tails by comparison has a far more important tale, that of an all-black fighter squadron who undergo discrimination in the air and back home, where racism keeps the pilots far from the front lines. The best these beleaguered pilots can hope for is to mop up where white units have already stopped patrolling. Their commanding officer, Colonel Bullard (Terrence Howard), has been hard lobbying for the unit to have a more active role in the war in Europe, and that has finally paid off when bomber squadrons need escorts to protect them in delivering payloads deep into Nazi-occupied Germany. Fighting through a sky full of Luftwaffe and preconceptions about their abilities, the pilots manage to prove their ability to both themselves and the rest of two opposing armies certain they will fail.

Here they are; recognize any of them?

There’s not a whole lot of difference outside the general story however.  As a director, Anthony Hemingway has nothing akin to the experience that Spielberg had before Ryan was released in 1998. Hemingway, who has directed episodes of cable shows Battlestar Galactica, The Wire and Treme, has never before directed a major motion picture, and that is readily apparent when you stand back and watch him in action. While competently done, the story gets bogged down by cliches that are as natural to a war film as guns, bullets and death. Nobody likes to mention how many of those cliches made their way into Spielberg’s release however, and for a war film the stock characters, obvious plot lines, predictable outcomes and nick-of-time rescues are no more prevalent in Red Tails than any major WWII title of the past two decades. Hemingway’s work on The Wire and Treme also means he’s used to working with a black cast, several of whom he worked with on those two shows. Say what you want about George Lucas, but he knew enough that he couldn’t get the job done in the director's chair in the same way that Hemingway would.

The best pilots you've never heard of
What the characters may lack in depth, they make up for in exuberance from the film’s acting corps. Terrence Howard is the unrivaled star of the film, despite the fact that he doesn’t once enter the cockpit of a P-51 fighter. When Howard enters the room, he demands attention, and when Colonel Bullard tells a racist superior officer that he and his men don’t care what he thinks, the entire audience rallies behind him. Despite his singular acting strengths, it’s the pilots who are the focus of the story, and fortunately most of them are very good actors deserving of their shot at prime time here. David Oyelowo had a good 2011 with American audiences, with supporting roles in The Help and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, two very good films that showed his flexibility as a performer. Here he’s a cocky fighter jockey who look for trouble and love in equal doses. Other standouts include Nate Parker as an alcoholic flight leader with daddy issues, The Wire and 90210’s Tristan Wilds as a young pilot desperate to prove himself, and Andre Royo as a cantankerous mechanic. Even while most of the others are not especially detailed characters, the sheer joy the actors take with them on the set is infectious and translates to a strong communal personality that overrides the inability to sometimes tell the secondary pilots apart. Not that there aren’t disappointments, especially Cuba Gooding Jr. as Bullard’s second in command, who has a few too many scenes and gets overshadowed by the talent of just about everyone else.

Ooh, that's going to hurt
An unfortunate side effect to making a movie about WWII in this day and age is that it’s usually cheaper to create all the action in CGI than the old methods, which usually involved building replica machines of what was actually used at the time. So instead of rebuilding a squadron of P-51 fighters and dozens of B-19 bombers to shoot aerial dogfights, not to mention dozens of German fighter planes, the entirety of sky battles are fought in a computer program. While the visuals themselves are beautiful and chaotic in their execution, they do sometimes feel a little off, especially when a plane is shot down. It’s a little disappointing when you look at some of the best special effects of the past few years, but considering that Red Tails has a much lower budget than most of those special effects juggernauts, what they do show is really not all that bad.

I may not know how to pronounce his name, but Oyelowo deserves to be a star
So what is the real difference between Red Tails and other war movies? On the surface, the all-black cast is definitely unique for a major motion picture. If it does well that would certainly separate it from Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna, another movie about a segregated WWII unit that was a box office bomb and a main argument against these variety of films. Other than the color of the actors’ skins, however, there is absolutely no reason to go to any other WWII film over Red Tails. While this is by no means a GREAT film, it is an enjoyable one, and doubtlessly an IMPORTANT one to see on the big screen. There’s no reason Saving Private Ryan can make over $200 million all by itself and be so lauded, just for similar movies like Red Tails to be so ignored by audiences. There are few enough minority stars in this business that when such a concentrated effort is made to put them forward, especially in such a strong manner, it says a lot about us when we don’t bother to support it. Don’t make that mistake now. See Red Tails when you can. Even if it’s no more than an enjoyable action movie, that should be reason enough to want to see it.

For now at least, it's the #1 film of 2012.


Anonymous said...

" There are few enough minority stars in this business that when such a concentrated effort is made to put them forward, especially in such a strong manner, it says a lot about us when we don’t bother to support it."

Should I see "Think Like A Man" for the same reason? How about "Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son"?

Donald W.

Mr. Anderson said...

Let me put this a different way: the reality in Hollywood is that to be a big shot, you're best off being or casting white. When you see a major Hollywood release, one with a large amount of money behind it, who is in the lead? Brad Pitt? George Clooney? Angelina Jolie? Johnny Depp? As good as many minority actors are, you won't see supremely talented actors like Idris Elba or Michael Pena up front. Yes, Denzel Washington is an excellent actor who is in big, money-making movies, but I'll be happy when he's the rule and NOT merely the exception.

Lucas faced such difficulty making this movie not because producers thought the film wouldn't be interesting or good, but because they thought it would be too much of a challenge to market an all-black cast when they're used to making movies for a specific, mostly white demographic. They simply didn't want to take the risk. Lucas, in his interview on The Daily Show, stated that he wanted to make a film about true black heroes, that young boys could look up to.

Is Red Tails a great film? As I said, no. But a film that features African Americans as heroes and not criminals or other bad guys in dramatic roles is a welcome change and should be celebrated.