Red Tails (Hemingway, 2012)

Red Tails

Red Tails is an earnest, straight forward, somewhat generic, but easily likable war-action movie that will probably be both overpraised and overcritized due to it being produced by George Lucas. 

My friend at the screening said the film had Lucas’s fingerprints all over it “and not in a good way,” but I couldn’t help feeling that maybe Lucas had found a niche. The war movie genre is not exactly subtle, but everyone involved in the film, from Lucas, to director Anthony Hemingway, to a solid ensemble cast doesn’t try to overshadow or divert attention from the place from where the film derives its power. Nobody is trying to make up a good story to tell. Everyone just recognizes that there is a good story and are trying to get out of its way.

The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is so amazing, that it almost feels at odds with the conventions of a generic military movie. The collective is more than the sum of the parts, at least cinematically, but while each individual moment has gravitas, the film never invites us in. They are representative, defined by a single characteristic: the music lover, the black Jesus lover, the hot shot, the self-doubting drinker, the baby-faced youngster. They do extraordinary things, we get little of any sort of inner world. These must have been fascinating men, capable of drawing upon reserves of strength, patience, and courage that informed their achievements. If I have a reservation about the film it is that Red Tails never stops applauding the achievement long enough to really developed the characters who are achieving them.

That said, the film has undeniable emotional power. My favorite scene was probably the first time the white bomber crew spots a Negro escort. “What do we do?” one of them asks (somewhat comically). Bookend that with a scene where white officers spot the crew on the ground post-mission and ask to buy them a drink, and you have the film in microcosm. Sometimes it is the achievement that matters. It’s possible but exceptionally hard to despise someone who saves your life or is willing to risk his own for your sake.

The aerial battle sequences are thrilling, much better than Top Gun (in my opinion), in part because you can mostly follow what is happening while still retaining the sense of chaos that pervades any battle.

I also appreciated that the film avoided making the plot too postmodern, cynical, or ironically detached. This is material that only works if everyone involved plays it straight–and they do. Red Tails is the kind of film where you can’t remember the characters’ names the next day and may struggle to remember any non-battle scene the next week, but you can (and do) remember the point. Heroism comes in all shapes, sizes, and colors.

Thank you soldiers, past and present.

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