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'Red Tails': Film takes flight only when planes in air

David Oyelowo plays one of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen in Red Tails.
David Oyelowo plays one of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen in Red Tails.

Red Tails never takes off. The subject matter — the trials and triumphs of the first all-black Army Air Corps fighter group, nicknamed the Tuskegee Airmen — is new. Yet the film has no story to tell that Hollywood hasn't told before.

It's derivative of other World War II movies and entirely mechanical. It honors those exceptional fliers but denies viewers a challenging portrait of our own history.

Tuskegee's segregated airmen proved themselves against the German Luftwaffe's best, including new fighter jets. They shredded the U.S. military's assumption that blacks were not equal to the rigors of serving in a highly technical combat arm.

This movie (a longtime pet project of executive producer George Lucas) isn't about people; it's about airplanes. The slickly filmed aerial sequences, directed by TV veteran Anthony Hemingway, are engrossing and well-staged; you never lose track of who's who in the sky.

When the action moves into the bunkhouse, however, or to a wooden flirtation between one of the fliers and a bella signorina living near their Italian airbase, the film goes into a nosedive.

The best of the one-note performances is Terrence Howard's as the fliers' commander. His verbal skirmishes with a racist senior officer (Bryan Cranston) probably would have had him up on charges of insubordination, but his brooding intensity gives the film its few moments of dramatic power. As his pipe-chomping second-in-command, Cuba Gooding Jr. is as flavorless as water.

The elements of John Ridley's undistinguished screenplay are relentlessly old-school, right down to a German wing commander who instructs his pilots to "show no mercy." The U.S. fliers are thinly characterized (the gung-ho youngster, the secret drinker, the romantic), their barracks life an intense Boy Scout atmosphere of virtue, loyalty and fraternal love. Fighting for their country is their utmost desire and, from all evidence, virtually their only activity. There are some losses on the American side, but the consequences of flesh meeting shrapnel are downplayed. Combat death is sentimental, not horrific. At every turn, the film pulls its punches.

The only real surprise is how resolutely apolitical the film is. In 2008, Spike Lee's Miracle at St. Anna followed the men of an all-black infantry unit through the Italian campaign of 1944. His film extended long past V-E Day, deepening the story by showing how the men who won the war lost the peace. We know that life for the Tuskegee veterans was no picnic after the ticker tape was swept away, and I would have respected this film if it had followed them through their subsequent battles as civilians.

Red Tails is not the film they deserve. It is a timid film about brave men.

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