Edward Ashley, Matt Gavan, Callum Turner and Anthony Boyle in...

 Edward Ashley, Matt Gavan, Callum Turner and Anthony Boyle in "Masters of the Air"  on Apple TV+. Credit: Apple TV+

LIMITED SERIES "Masters of the Air"

WHERE Streaming Friday on Apple TV+

WHAT IT'S ABOUT The Eighth Army Air Force's 100th Bomb Group — soon to be known as the Bloody 100th — arrives at Thorpe Abbotts airfield in East Anglia, England, in the spring of 1943, with an immediate goal of bringing the war to Germany. By June, the 100th does, as waves of B-17 “Flying Fortresses'' (“Forts'') head for the German mainland, although (on average) more than half do not return. Major Gale “Buck” Cleven (Austin Butler), his close friend Maj. John “Bucky” Egan (Callum Turner), Lt. Curtis Biddick (Barry Keoghan), and navigator Lt. Harry Crosby (Anthony Boyle) quickly assume leadership positions because of their skill, but soon enough realize skill has little to do with survival. Some of those who don't perish in the skies over enemy territory — these precision daylight bombing runs were far more perilous than the Royal Air Force's nighttime ones — end up in a massive stalag. 

This long-awaited nine-part companion to "Band of Brothers'' (2001) and “The Pacific'' (2010) was also produced by John Orloff, and developed by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. While largely an adaptation of Donald L. Miller's 2006 history of the Eighth and 100 BG, Crosby's own memoirs were also incorporated.

MY SAY Miller's fine source material for this series went to considerable lengths to make readers feel what these “Fort” crew members felt in the moment, but what they — and you — will feel from the first frames is the cold.

Not just mere cold, but something so implacable that bare skin is superglued to anything that's metal before the frostbite sets in. That magisterial title “Masters of the Air” is forcibly ironic in these instances, after which ironies pile upon more ironies. No one is a “master” up in that cerulean blue, but an intruder, soon to be a statistic.

The white-knuckle battle scenes of “Masters” aren't just minor masterpieces of direction and cinematography (they are) but also attempt to erase the line between illusion and reality (they effortlessly do). They're also unblinkered: If a leg, or face, or arm is blown off, then you will see that. If the airmen are terrified, panicked or helpless, you will understand why. There are no heroics up there, or platitudes about “saving democracy”; it's all about survival in time frames measured in seconds, then fractions of those. “Masters'' is a numbers game that everyone, for the most part, eventually loses. Or as someone explains, “If you stay alive for 11 [out of the required 25] missions, you beat the odds — or you didn't.”

But immersive viewing experience aside, all of this is what puts “Masters” at a disadvantage compared to “Band of Brothers,” the classic that launched this trilogy 23 years ago. “Brothers” had a mostly intact core cast, narrative throughline and a climactic episode (“Why We Fight”') that clarified the Allied cause. Because of the remorseless arithmetic of “Masters,” characters (some of them big stars) are dispatched with ruthless efficiency, while storylines in the early episodes tend to be circular (up they go, back some of them come … then repeat).

And like the cavalry to the rescue, the Tuskegee Airmen — along with their legendary 332nd Fighter Group “Red Tail” P-51 Mustangs — arrive too late in the series for their own intensely dramatic stories to get a fuller treatment. 

Nevertheless, what "Masters'' accomplishes is remarkable enough, and a genuinely moving tribute to those “bomber boys” of the Eighth, which the late CBS commentator Andy Rooney (who flew as a reporter with the 100th) called “one of the great fighting forces in the history of warfare.”

You are about to see why.

BOTTOM LINE Magnificent achievement.

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