Let me state at the outset that RED TAILS will be seen as both a commercial and critical failure. It’s hard to see, despite the mass marketing blitz, how this film about the famed Tuskeegee airmen, the first black fighting air squadron in the US military, will manage even in this slow season to reap back its budget. Secondly, Executive Producer George Lucas has hardly endeared himself to critics, his archaic style and clunky dialogue often risible, with some going as far to blame him for the infantilization rampant in modern blockbuster cinema.
Still, underneath the hype and the expectation, beyond the 20 year quest that Lucas has undergone to see the film brought to the screens, and accepting the fact that this is a throwback, gee-whiz film of the 40s variety, how does RED TAILS work on its own playing field?
Not very well, unfortunately.
There’s much to admire about the film – there’s a certain tenacity to the way its told, an unapologetic nostalgia without a trace of irony. The heroes and villains are drawn in stark black and white contrast, the difference this time is that the heroes, of course, are the black characters. On a recent visit to THE DAILY SHOW WITH JOHN STEWART, Lucas admitted that the studios bucked at an all-black action movie cast. Even 20th Century Fox, for whom Lucas has made billions, only reluctantly took on certain distribution duties, with the vast majority of the marketing budget coming out of Lucasfilm’s coffers. Naturally, this doesn’t mean it was all worth it from an artistic point of view, but what it does mean, in an ideal world, that we’d get an uncompromising, visionary work that really brought home the story of these pioneering airmen. It’s on that level, unfortunately, that the film flounders.
The air battles themselves are certainly pretty, with glistening fuselages and the rat-a-tat-tat of machine guns lighting up the skies. If there’s one thing the film does exceptionally well is contextualize for a contemporary audience the battle scenes that Lucas drew for the original STAR WARS films – after all, calling out “Red Five Standing by” works equally well in both films. There’s loads of cockpit “chatter” to develop character, as if the trench run of A NEW HOPE was drawn out to theatrical length. Heck, even the Nazi pilot, wheezing through his mask, connotes a certain Darth-dude in unapologetic fashion.
The film manages to slip in some history, but there’s an uneasy feeling that the actual events have been neutered of any real tension. Sure, Terrence Howard’s character manages to browbeat generals back at the Pentagon to “give his boys a shot”, and a pipe chompin’ Cuba Gooding Jr. does his best to rally the flyers, but for modern audiences the entire thing, from dogfight to Italian romance, comes across as more than a little bit too convenient. While respecting the sacrifices of the men and the tenacity they employed in fighting for for their country and the prejudices they also had to suffer through, the film doesn’t quite manage to find the balance it’s trying to achieve. Unfortunately, the editing of the piece doesn’t help to alleviate any of these concerns, the tonal shifts often too abrupt as if they’re trying to cram too much into a small space (evidenced by a funeral scene that’s interrupted by a returning POW, the shift in temperament coming across as almost arbitrary). At its worst, the film suffers from editorial missteps that lurch the film along – while Ben Burtt is a genius and personal hero for his sound work over the last four decades, his picture cutting style in this work leaves much to be desired. While Lucas’ work with John Williams is the stuff of legend, it is the score by (the usually fabulous) Terence Blanchard that’s probably the most irritating part of the whole film, a misstep from the first note.
While Anthony Hemingway (an African-American making his feature debut) is credited as director, it will be hard to not see Lucas’ hands all over this project. This is not to undermine the contribution of the director, but to be realistic about how Lucas has traditionally played the Executive Producer role, a throwback to the likes of Selznick (or even contemporary television operations) where the producer or show-runner has the overall vision for the work, and then hires a director to execute that vision on a day-to-day basis on set. The film’s Producer Rick McCallum originally joined Lucas for the YOUNG INDIANA JONES television series, an earnest, laudable, but not always successful series of shows where our hero was thrown into a variety of famous historical incidents, having the audience learn a superficial yet mildly insightful amount about a given era. RED TAILS feels a lot like the tone set by those pieces, as if the real history is somehow softened in the translation to screen (certainly the lack of smoking, profanity, and other elements lack the realism of the time). This isn’t entirely a knock on this film, it’s not purporting to be anything more than a throwback piece, but at the same time it’s hard to go back to a wide-eyed time when we’ve seen this era tackled so effectively by greater works. I would have liked to have seen an HBO-style take on this story with this level of craft from the visual department, as BAND OF BROTHERS (and to a lesser extent the PACIFIC) proved to be extraordinarily efficient at providing both scope of narrative and real character development for a complicated story set during the war. Measured against these television shows (let alone SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, another throwback film that transcended its maudlin bookends and craft something quite remarkable), RED TAILS seems at once a minor and forgettable work.
Still, underneath all of this, there’s a fun little movie. You get planes up in the sky, a bunch of pilot derring-do, a cast that never winks at the audience or plays up their position (including several members from the fabulous show THE WIRE), and a tale with a decent amount of catharsis by the end. In that same DAILY SHOW interview Lucas stated that this was the middle part of a three part series – while it’s almost impossible to envision him ever making those other projects (talk of his retirement has been rampant over the last several days), I can’t help but feel that those films, both the buildup of the squadron and the aftermath of the war, would be the really interesting, compelling works. We get all nougat and not enough chocolate, as it were, and we’re left with a pretty superficial amount of drama and deep character in favour of bombast and heroics.
It can be safely said that this is no failure along the lines of a PEARL HARBOR, that execrable exercise in revisionism which also had Cuba Gooding Jr. in it, nor is it anywhere near as repulsive, racist and hamfisted as Spike Lee’s own take on African-American soldiers with MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA. This may be faint praise, but it took quite a lot of mental energy midway through RED TAILS to recall that it’s nowhere near as bad as it could have been. Pissing on this film will feel mildly like kicking a puppy, so wide-eyed and earnest a work that tryin so hard to be entertaining, yet save for a few delightful sequences it falls short of its goal.
While RED TAILS is indeed a failure at what it sets out to do, it’s a strangely endearing one, a missed opportunity that wears its eagerness to please on its sleeve. Assembling a fine cast of African-American talent and have them tell the true tale with the same conviction as a John Wayne piece is laudable, and perhaps for some 5 year old kid watching the planes whizz by, flown by pilots with the same skin colour as themselves, there will be a greater connection to this under-appreciated part of American military history. Unfortunately, its good intentions aren’t enough to sustain the work, and even going in with wildly lowered expectations, granting the film enormous leeway as it trod on very tired tropes of WWII action cinema, RED TAILS proves to be a visually fun, disappointing bust.