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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Red Tails Report Card

Hollywood titans have always enjoyed varying degrees of success or failure vis a vis the amount of creative control they have over their films. Charlie Chaplin's success skyrocketed when he began directing his own comedies. Contemporary silent clown Harold Lloyd crashed and burned when he was given directorial control. Or so I've read. George Lucas's ascension from California film school nerd into the Hollywood pantheon happened because of two films: American Graffiti and Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope).

Despite his debut, the box-office flop THX1138, he was given a chance at another feature. American Graffiti did so well, having such a great return on the investment, that the studios let him shoot his fairy-tale space opera despite a consensus that it would be a colossal failure. In fact, he funded much of the production with his profits from American Graffiti (creating Industrial Light and Magic in the process). Well, he proved everyone wrong with the phenomenal success of Star Wars, obviously.

I want to point out that Lucas's screenplays for these great films were tuned up by other writers. The first two Star Wars sequels were box office smashes, too (despite the annoying Ewoks and growing obsession with grotesque aliens), written and directed by someone other than Lucas. As evident in More American Graffiti, when left with sole creative control of a film, Lucas's cinematic efforts were forgettable.

A generation later, his Star Wars prequel trilogy was a special effects bonanza (soon to be re-released in 3D), but the storytelling had lost a whole lot of zing. Surprise surprise: his creative control over the projects was as unquestionable as the Pope's decrees are to Catholicism. Detect a pattern yet?

So, as I blogged before, I was invited to see Red Tails with some friends, and jumped at the chance since it's about the Tuskeegee Airmen in WWII. We just went last night.

Lucas is credited as the producer, not the director, but his fingerprints are all over this flick. Deep, deep fingerprints, as in "dictatorial control" fingerprints. Unfortunately, it conforms to the pattern of the Lucas canon. I've decided to review this flick via letter grade, based on a few different aspects.


Hey, they seem to have gotten the superficial aircraft details right. Also, they did have a broad-brush grasp of the air campaign in Europe.

But the bulk of the research to fill in the military details seems to have been done, not by consulting technical advisors with military experience or studying military history, but by watching old war movies. Writers should know something about what the military is like. Actors should be taught how to wear the uniform, how to throw a friggin' salute, when to have their headgear on and when not, etc.

I've never been a fighter pilot, but it seems to me the air combat sequences were comic-book fanciful. No biggie--it was fun to watch...with one irritating caveat: No P-40 or P-51 pilot in the film dropped a single bomb, yet their guns seemed to have the same effect that bombs would have. Whatever they strafed exploded as if the Germans had coated all the equipment in their entire war machine with C-4 rigged with gunfire-triggered detonators. I mean, if a pilot's machineguns scored a hit on a sheet of plywood, it would have caused a half-kiloton explosion.


"90% of directing is casting." So goes the old sage's axiom in Tinseltown. All the actors in this film are either talented or at least competent, though I grudgingly agree with other critics that the characters they were given to play were little more than types (stereotypes, archetypes--call them what you will).


The dogfight scenes are terrific. About as good as CGI is presently capable of.


This didn't become a big hairy political diatribe, and I'm grateful for that. But the dialog, while not horrible, was pretty hackneyed--something you'd expect from a WWII film shot in 1942. There were some transitions that gave nice understatement to the thematic stream. But significant plot points struck me as contrived. And the romantic subplot seemed tacked on merely to make one character's fate more poignant. It was underdeveloped, overplayed, not very honest considering the geo-historic backdrop, and ultimately pointless.


I don't normally include criticism of the musical score, and never before have criticized credits. When those elements are bad enough to draw attention to themselves, let alone merit mention in a review, they're pretty bad. Lucas financed this film all with his own money, and these are two aspects in which it shows. The credits looked like what you'd see in a low budget TV show--like they were added by a vintage video toaster at an access cable station. The score wasn't as bad; but it was unremarkable. I did like the inclusion of America the Beautiful, but I can't help thinking it was added due to its public domain status, not because the musicians had any passion for the music. There were points in the film where the maker(s) were trying to pull my heartstrings, or at least generate some kind of emotional response. A good composer can help them do that, even when the writing and acting don't carry their fair share of the load. Whoever this composer was did not. This was most disappointing, since other Lucas films were so spot-on in this regard (think of John Williams' Star Wars theme--it was absolutely perfect).

My overall assessment of Red Tails is a "C." Wait for Red Box, then watch it with your 13-or-older kids on a family day with lots of popcorn. Loud, crunchy popcorn.


  1. Really sad. The Tuskegee Airmen deserve much better. A movie about Blacks in WWII I'd like to see would be about the Triple Nickle, the 555 Parachute Infantry Battalion, an amazingly great unit. American commanders were so scared of the idea of Black Paratroopers (White ones were trouble enough) that they were never deployed overseas, but became the first smoke jumpers, fighting fires set by Japanese incendiary balloons sent overseas via the jet stream to destroy American's forests, hence construction materials. When the 82d came home the 555 was assigned to it, and LTG Jim Gavin insisted that they march in the Victory Parade down 5th Avenue. They are a legend in the airborne and one of their NCOs broke me in as a new 2d LT. He taught me stuff about being shart, prepared, and on time that they didn't teach in ROTC.

  2. I actually met some of the triple nickle vets at the 82nd reunion back when i attended every year. (Also saw a bumper sticker that said "member of original parachute test platoon. Pretty cool but I never met the driver.)

    Thanks for the historical perspective Jim. Glad you're able to comment now!


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