By Kurt Jensen
Catholic News Service
NEW YORK (CNS) — The last time audiences watched flag-waving hokum on the order of "Red Tails" (Fox), the show may have included a cartoon and a newsreel, and war bonds may have been for sale in the lobby. Patriotic corn, it seems, is not a staple that ages especially well.
During World War II, combat-themed films were relentlessly upbeat because the federal government, as well as the Production Code Administration, decreed such optimism to be in the interest of home-front morale.
But what director Anthony Hemingway and screenwriters John Ridley and Aaron McGruder obviously intended as an enthusiastic fact-based homage to that type of motion picture instead comes off as shallow and cliched storytelling about a famed group of Tuskegee Airmen.
As their film opens in 1944, the 332nd Fighter Group of the Army Air Forces — made up of African-American pilots based in Italy — are shown banished to rear-guard missions such as strafing a German supply train and making coastal patrols with second-hand P-40 Warhawks.
These fliers yearn to get into the scrap. But they face racism, not only from the distant Pentagon — where Col. A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) fights the good fight on behalf of his subordinates — but from their nearby white counterparts.
They’re finally awarded the use of the P-51 Mustang — a muscular plane suitable for bomber escorts and nimble enough to outmaneuver the first German jets. This being the time before stealth aircraft, the Mustangs’ noses and tails are painted bright red. Those at the controls clearly intend to be seen and remembered.
The history lesson is easy enough to convey if the filmmakers would only focus on the task at hand. Instead, they prefer to have their flyboys cracking wise with such remarks as "How you like that, Mr. Hitler?" and aphorisms like "Experience is a cruel teacher. You get the exam first, then the lesson."
The aviators are shown to be practicing Christians, particularly David "Deke" (short for Deacon) Watkins, played by Marcus T. Paulk. Deke’s cockpit carries an icon of a black Jesus, and he leads his comrades in prayer before takeoff.
Tristan Wilds as Ray "Junior" Gannon finds romance with Sofia (Daniela Ruah), an Italian girl, and Cuba Gooding Jr. as Maj. Emmanuel Stance grunts a lot and never takes his pipe out of his mouth. On the up side, despite their predictable outcomes, the extended dogfight sequences are everything you’d expect from the greatest generation.
The film contains extensive aerial combat violence, an instance of implied premarital sex as well as fleeting crude and crass language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
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Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.