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Red Tails (2012)

Historically Blackurate

George Lucas should have taken his name off this movie. Now, if you've settled in for another hatchet-job on a film that's as big a target for critics as German fighter planes were to the Tuskegee Airmen, you should know that I really liked Red Tails.

I loved parts of it and hated others, but in the end I was entertained and educated--hence my mild recommendation. It's mild only because when so many reviewers rally against something, I get very nervous sticking my neck out. For the record, I don't care what other people think, but I do care about the viewing experiences of my readers--and I never like leading people astray (though I'm sure it's happened, and will again).

For the life of me, I can't understand peoples' venomous reaction to this movie--unless it's because of Lucas' "Executive Producer" title. Yes, he ruined Star Wars for several generations; yes, he nuked Indiana Jones' fridge; but neither sin should color peoples' perception of his new projects. In the case of Red Tails, he's assembled a top-notch team of actors and visual effects artists to give us an old-fashioned war movie for the Avatar age.

In fairness, the first fifteen minutes are some of the most unintentionally hilarious that I've seen in years. Beginning with a contender for Worst Title Sequence in History, we open on a US bomber squadron making its way through German airspace. They're attacked by Nazi fighters, who make quick work of several big planes and many of the smaller ones meant to defend them. I figured this out much later in the film, as characters discussed the raid.

Watching the scene itself was futile. Director Anthony Hemingway employs staging and editing tactics that are eerily reminiscent of Lucas' work on Star Wars Episode III's opening space battle. The key difference is that the ships in the Star Wars universe have distinct shapes, so even if you don't know which side is flying which ship, it doesn't look like the same vehicles attacking each other for no discernable reason. Additionally, the title designer splatters giant, red credits directly over the already confusing action--making it impossible to tell what's going on.

Moving on from there, we're introduced to a contingent of the Tuskegee Airmen as they patrol the skies over Italy, hunting Nazi convoys. Like the one-dimensional Nazi pilots and Gee-whiz-golly white Americans we met in the opening battle, we're introduced to our heroes in uncomfortably stereotypical fashion: hotshot fighter pilot Joe "Lightning" Little (David Oyelowo) lets out a big yawn as he wakes up in the middle of the flight; turns out he'd been up all night, messing around with a local girl. Later, we meet Major Stance (Cuba Gooding Jr.), the boys' put-upon wrangler whose defining characteristic is chomping down authoritatively on a giant pipe (seriously, this is the stuff of drinking-game legend).

After this rough start, the filmmakers smooth things out by playing to their strengths--namely, a few key performers and gorgeous, CG-simulations of aerial photography. Lightning's bunkmate is squad leader Marty "Easy" Julian (Nate Parker), a by-the-numbers military man who wrestles with alcoholism and a creeping fear that his men respect Lightning's daring acrobatics more than his own rank. John Ridley and Aaron McGruder's screenplay (based on John B. Holway's book) balances Lightning's dynamic with Easy, an attractive Italian villager named Sofia (Daniela Ruah), and the Red Tails' chief officer, Colonel Bullard (Terrence Howard in full-on THIS-IS-AN-IMPORTANT-STORY-THAT-NEEDS-TO-BE-TOLD mode).

There are sub-plots galore, including Bullard's constant head-butting with Washington's bigoted brass (Bryan Cranston shows up for precisely two minutes as the grouchy, opinionated General Ray Syst*), and the boisterous rookie who will do anything for respect--including convincing his superior officer to let him fly following an eye injury that took a quarter of his sight. But the story never feels muddled or meandering. All of the elements bounce nicely off one another, and usher the film to its inevitable conclusion.

The journey to that conclusion involves a lot of CG dog-fighting. And despite my disdain for the one that opens the movie, I absolutely loved those that came after. Hemingway and his VFX team deliver several thrilling moments when the Tails are finally unleashed on the enemy, and despite a few noticeable edge problems, the action seemed real enough. Because this is a Lucas production, it's hard not to think of Star Wars when watching some of these maneuvers; I lack knowledge in physics and historical planes, but nothing stood out to me as being particularly unrealistic.

I knew very little of the Tuskegee Airmen before watching Red Tails, but I learned a lot while watching the movie--and not just about their role in World War II. I discovered that my own perception about the way people are portrayed in movies is partially skewed by race. For example, I was offended by many of the mannerisms and accent choices displayed by the black cast. In particular, Ne-Yo (playing Andrew "Smoky" Salem) sounds like what I imagine hard-core racists hear in their heads when watching Barack Obama on the news. It's the worst kind of ignorant, slurred, non-word communication, and the first time I heard it, I thought I was being put on. But as Smoky--and the rest of the pilots--became full characters, I realized that many of the white-centric war movies I love feature one or two hicks with thick, unintelligible accents; but I've never had a problem with them. I don't know if Smoky's presentation would pass the historical accuracy test, but I can't pin my discomfort with him on anyone but myself.

Much of the criticism I've heard about the movie is that it's unnecessary, thanks to the 1995 film, The Tuskegee Airmen. This is one of the dumbest premises in the history of dumb premises. If there's an unwritten law that only one film is allowed to be made per historical event, then someone needs to have a serious talk with Clint Eastwood (after stringing up Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks). Yes, Red Tails comes off as corny in parts. Some elements feel recycled from other war movies, but mainstream war movies have a discernable shorthand, a language that both their fans and filmmakers speak. Lucas didn't want to put out a Terrence Malick film; he wanted an earnest, mass-appeal movie that more than a hundred people would actually pay to see on the big screen.

I've gone far enough out of my way to defend Red Tails. See it or don't. But if you don't see it, make sure you've seen through the bizarre critical smokescreen first. There are a few things wrong with the movie, but there's nothing wrong with it.

*Okay, that's not really the character's name--but you get the picture.

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