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‘Masters of Air’ tells stories of WWII bombers

Apple TV+ series completes Spielberg, Hanks war trilogy

By Peter Larsen, The Orange County Register
Published: January 27, 2024, 5:58am

In June 1943, 36 B-17 Flying Fortress bombers in the U.S. Army Air Force 100th Bombardment Group arrived at an airbase in England, each with a flight crew of 10 men, all of them there to battle Nazi Germany in World War II.

Four months later, 34 of the 36 Flying Fortresses had been shot down, giving the group its nickname: The Bloody 100th.

If that sounds like a compelling story to you, well, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks thought so, too. Along with their fellow executive producer Gary Goetzman, they grabbed the rights to “Masters of the Air,” a history of the American Eighth Air Force, which included the Bloody 100th, for the limited series of the same name.

“Masters of the Air,” which premiered with two episodes on Apple TV+ Friday, completes the trilogy of World War II series that Spielberg, Hanks and Goetzman embarked upon with “Band of Brothers” in 2001 and “The Pacific” in 2010.

It’s a sweeping war story, an impeccably crafted series that captures the drama inherent in the life-and-death stakes, with death the more common outcome. The crews climbed into hulking airplanes, flew dangerous daylight bombing missions over enemy territory and if they survived the terror of anti-aircraft flak and German Messerschmitt fighters, they headed out a day or two later to do it all again.

“One of the things that makes its impression on me when I go back and watch the series? We really tried to do as much justice as we could to the danger,” said actor Nate Mann, who plays Maj. Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal in “Masters of the Air.” “To the precariousness. To just how harrowing these missions were.”

Dream roles

Rosenthal, like the other main characters in the series, was a real person. A young lawyer from Brooklyn, he enlisted after Pearl Harbor and beat the odds of the Bloody 100th to become one of the most decorated bomber pilots of the war.

Mann and actor Anthony Boyle, who plays Maj. Harry Crosby, a B-17 navigator, and later, navigator for the entire bomb group, talked recently about the dream-like feeling of working on the project that completed a trilogy they first encountered as boys.

“I watched ‘Band of Brothers’ as a kid,” Mann said. “I think it was one of the first TV shows I’d watched in its entirety. It made such a big impression on me.”

He also saw “Saving Private Ryan,” the 1997 World War II epic for which Spielberg directed Hanks, and later, “The Pacific,” too.

“This show, it’s the same lineage,” Mann said of Goetzman, Hanks and Spielberg. “It was actually seeing how much this story mattered to them, and why this story was so important to tell, I knew I wanted to be a part of that legacy.”

The Irish Boyle, who as Crosby, also narrates the series, said his experience was similar.

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“Yeah, for me, man, it was those three names,” Boyle said, recalling receiving an email about the project that didn’t share too many specifics. “You go, ‘Oh, of course, I want it. I don’t even know what it is, but I want to do it.’

“Then when I found out it was the third installment of ‘Band of Brothers,’ which was one of my favorite series growing up, I just wanted to — you know, I’d have held the boom. I’d have just sat in the room and watched it,” he said. “So to play a role in it was just a really great honor.”

Finest details

Boyle and Mann are part of a quartet of lead actors that includes Austin Butler, an Oscar nominee for “Elvis,” and Callum Turner as best friends Maj. Gale “Buck” Cleven and Maj. John “Bucky” Egan. (And yes, Buck and Bucky were their real nicknames.)

Barry Keoghan, an Oscar nominee for “The Banshees of Inisherin,” plays fellow pilot Lt. Curtis Biddick. And the trio of actors Branden Cook, Josiah Cross and new “Doctor Who” star Ncuti Gatwa arrive in the final episodes of the series as Tuskegee Airmen, Black pilots flying P-51 fighter planes.

With a budget estimated at $250 million to $300 million, the talents of the cast and crew are matched with the amazing verisimilitude in all departments: sets that include a recreation of the Thorpe Abbotts airfield where the Bloody 100th was based, period costumes, hair and makeup, and most impressively, B-17 Flying Fortresses.

Only a few dozen Flying Fortresses still exist, and just a handful are in flying condition. No problem for “Masters of the Air,” which built two full-sized replicas to film on the runways and then created smaller sections of the interiors for close shots of the actors in flight.

Or facsimile of flight, Mann and Boyle say. All of the in-flight scenes were shot on a soundstage with cockpits, navigation and bombardier stations, and gun placements attached to massive gimbals that could tilt and turn the bomber parts and actors inside them to simulate flight, strikes by fighter bullets and flak.

Instead of traditional green screen technology, the production created a huge wall and ceiling of LED screens onto which the flights and dogfights were projected. That allowed actors to react in real-time on set to the same images that viewers see them react to in the series.

“It was very different for me,” Boyle said of filming the airborne scenes. “It felt like we were trying to get as real as possible. As close to what it would have been like.

“We didn’t have a green screen; we had 360-degree screens,” he said. “There was this new technology we were using so we could actually see the planes coming toward us in 3D. It was like the full thing was coming around you, and we were on these hydraulics 50 feet in the air. They would shake, and when you were shot the plane would fall over.”

It was, both Mann and Boyle said, both immersive and claustrophobic inside the re-created B-17 interiors.

“Yeah, it was claustrophobic,” Boyle said. “Especially when you couldn’t pee when you’re up there for nine hours at a time and you were bursting to go.”

True memories

Both the detail of the mock bombers and the coaching of their military advisers gave both Mann and Boyle the sense that they were doing their best possible work re-creating the actions large and small of their real-life counterparts Rosenthal and Crosby.

“The level of detail, right down to the knobs and switches and gauges of those machines was something that was really important to Steven and Tom and Gary to try and get right, in order to make it feel as accurate as possible,” Mann said.

“One of our military advisers, Taigh (Ramey), actually has flown some of the remaining B-17s that are around,” he said. “So he would be on the walkie talking with us, and when we would call cut, he would say, ‘OK, this time, you’re going to switch this first in order to do that, because that’s how it would work.’

“So that level of specificity is great on our end because it just brings it to life.”

All of that helped build the confidence that allowed them to find the emotions they imagined the pilots and crews of the Bloody 100th might have felt.

“You know, you’re 25,000 feet up in the air, limited oxygen, it’s 40 below zero for hours at a time,” Mann said. “And in the midst of that, these men had to focus and work together in order to try and find their target.

“There’s some harrowing sequences in there that make a very intensive viewing experience,” he said. “Then in the midst of that, just to put into context the nature of the war, the nature of this specific conflict, which we’re embedding ourselves in.

“They’re stories that we were so interested in telling. Because these men, the men of the 100th, deserve to have their memories shared.”