“Masters of the Air” Review: Austin Butler and Barry Keoghan Are Flying Aces in Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg's WWII Drama

Callum Turner also costars in the epic Apple TV+ series about a brave bomber squadron

<p>Courtesy of Apple</p> Callum Turner, left, and Austin Butler.

Courtesy of Apple

Callum Turner, left, and Austin Butler.

Masters of the Air is one step closer to making its grand arrival on Apple TV+.

At the start of the network's laudably high-minded World War II epic, we meet the two central characters, Buck and Bucky. The near-twinning of their names may seem like some screenwriter’s notion of cute, but these men are drawn from history: Majors Buck Cleven (Elvis’ Austin Butler) and Bucky Egan (The Boys in the Boat’s Callum Turner) would become distinguished leaders of the legendary “Bloody 100th,” a bombing squad that was part of the Eighth Air Force.

Flying out of England, the 100th suffered calamitous losses against the Germans. In less than six months in 1943, 34 out of 36 crews were shot down. (One error may have been flying daylight missions — the British dropped their bombs by night.)

Buck is more reassuringly stolid than live-wire Bucky, but both are models of courage.

Related: Austin Butler Helps Lead a Group of Airmen Through World War II in First Masters of the Air Trailer

Based on Donald L. Miller’s nonfiction account, the nine-episode Masters is nothing if not bravely inspiring. The third World War II series to be coproduced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, it’s an often stirring and (sorry, boys) at times exhaustingly earnest salute to the Greatest Generation.

In a sense Masters is the show those selfless fighters might themselves have wanted to watch, if someone back in Washington, D.C. had commissioned a secret project to rush TV streaming into existence.

The show is clear-eyed and irony-free, the plot laid out in neat, straight planking. (What would World War II pilots have made of George Clooney’s glibly satiric Catch-22 for Hulu?) Then again, even Bucky and Buck might have balked at the show’s grandiose opening titles. The music swells and swells like a bubble of brass.

<p>Apple TV+</p> Saltburn's Barry Keoghan plays Lt. Curtis Biddick.

Apple TV+

Saltburn's Barry Keoghan plays Lt. Curtis Biddick.

Related: Austin Butler Says He 'Would Love to' Learn to Fly After Filming Masters of the Air

Not surprisingly, the many scenes of winged combat are superb — chaotic, nerve-jangling, thrilling. Those battles are what will draw and keep viewers.

Masters, which is nothing if not an expansively deluxe production, also deals compellingly with life in the German POW camps and the role of the Black fliers known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

<p>Courtesy of Apple</p> Branden Cook as 2nd Lt. Alexander Jefferson, one of the Tuskegee Airmen.

Courtesy of Apple

Branden Cook as 2nd Lt. Alexander Jefferson, one of the Tuskegee Airmen.

Related: Barry Keoghan Enlisted Austin Butler to Become His Sparring Partner on the Masters of the Air Set

On the other hand, sorting out the vast cast of characters can be a chore — apart from Lt. Curtis Biddick, who's played by the instantly recognizable Barry Keoghan, currently best known for his naked prancing at the end of Saltburn. But there are so many other new and unfamiliar actors, so many dapper little mustaches! It's as if Clark Gable had been cloned to fight the Luftwaffe.

The most impressive performer is Turner, who has the vaguely opaque sex appeal of a young Richard Gere. Butler, with his studied, plainspoken gravity, is more like a throwback to the old Jimmy Stewart.

Stewart, by the way, was Commanding Officer of the 703d Bomb Squadron during the war. According to the National Museum of the United States Air Force, he flew 20 combat missions.

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The first two episodes of Masters of the Air premieres Friday on Apple TV+.

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