The Millionaires’ Unit


Few aviators today truly know the joy of flying as they did when airplanes were new.

(2015) Documentary (Humanus) Bruce Dern (narrator), Marc Wortman, Michael Gates-Fleming, Henry P. Davison II, Gaddis Smith, Adele Quartley Brown, Hill Goodspeed, Erl Gould Parnell, Daniel P. Davison, Geoffrey Rossano, William MacLeish, John Lehman, Gene DeMarco, Malcolm P. Davison, Javier Arango, Sunny Toulmin. Directed by Darroch Greer and Ron King

 

Those folks who studied the history of the First World War are likely aware of the “Flying Aces,” daring pilots who engaged in dogfights with enemy pilots, shooting down their foes, gallant knights of the sky who were dashing romantic figures both then and now. America, late into the war, didn’t have much of an air force when they entered the war in 1916. In fact, they had none. The army had their own air corps to which heroes like Eddie Rickenbacker belonged. However there were also pilots working for the navy.

What’s extraordinary about the Naval Air Corps was that their genesis came from a civilian air club based at Yale University. There, an underclassman named F. Trubee Davison was sure that the United States would eventually be drawn into the conflict raging in Europe. He was so sure that airmen were going to be crucial to the war effort that he founded the Yale Air Club with the intention of training young men to be pilots so that when Uncle Sam called for pilots there would be some ready to go.

One has to remember that only 13 years had passed since the Wright Brothers had made their historic flight just south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Although they may not have been aware of it at the time, the life expectancy of new pilots entering the war was just 20 minutes; typically pilots only survived several weeks even well-trained. The casualties among the knights of the air were truly terrifying.

The members of the Air Club were born of privilege and wealth. The father of Trubee Davison was J.P. Morgan’s right hand man, a banker of considerable importance who visited Europe in the days before the war to help France secure loans to pay for their war effort. Trubee was very much affected by that trip and resolved to take part in defending what he termed our most sacred rights.

Although the Navy was at first resistant to having a civilian air corps (this was during peacetime remember), it wasn’t until war was declared that the idea of using airplanes to bomb enemy U-Boats became an idea embraced by Naval brass. Impressed by Trubee’s enthusiasm and resolve, they enlisted every member of the Yale Air Club into the Navy and sent them to Florida to train.

These boys were willing to put their lives on the line for what they believed, something that many don’t associate with the children of wealth. It was a different era however, one in which the belief was largely “to those to whom much is given, much is expected.” In other words, those who had more to lose should be expected to be willing to pay more to retain what they have. These days the examples of wealth and privilege is a whole lot less flattering.

Not all of the Yale Air Club returned home alive but those that did went on to success in life. Yale has always been a pipeline for Washington policy makers and several of the boys portrayed here would later, as men, be high-level officials in both the military and government while others went on to success in business and in the arts.

The film here is buttressed with excerpts from the letters and diaries of the men involved, recollections of their descendants, commentary by historians and best of all, archival film footage as well as vintage photographs of the men, their training and of the war. To a history buff like myself this is meat and potatoes but understandably those who are less fascinated by history will find this much less compelling.

Also at two hours the movie can be a bit of a slog. Although the stories are fascinating at times they get a little too detail-oriented on such minutiae as why the Sopwith Camel was a superior flying machine as well as its drawbacks, or details on the social mores of the time. Either this should have been a miniseries on something like the History Channel, or some of the more detailed descriptions cut. One suffers from informational overkill after the first hour

In any case history buffs – particularly those into military history – will find this compelling. Those who sat through history class with a blank stare and frequent glances at the clock may be less enthusiastic about this. Although I would have personally rated this a bit higher, I did bring the star rating down a bit to accommodate those who would not find this interesting; I can see how this would appeal to a niche audience but the material is definitely more than compelling.

This has been available on Blu-Ray for a while but is just now become available for streaming. Although only currently carried by one service (see below), the website promises wider availability in the near future.

REASONS TO GO: The story is absolutely a fascinating one and is well-augmented by vintage photographs and archival footage.
REASONS TO STAY: The documentary is a bit on the long side and might have made a better mini-series on The History Channel.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dern is the grand-nephew of Kenneth MacLeish who was one of the men profiled in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Living in the Age of Airplanes
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Boy Downstairs

Dunkirk (2017)


Waiting to evacuate, a British soldier nervously scans the sky for Nazi planes in Dunkirk.

(2017) War (Warner Brothers) Fionn Whitehead, Barry Keoghan, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, Tom Glynn-Carney, James D’Arcy, Harry Styles, Will Attenborough, Aneurin Barnard, Jack Lowden, Billy Howle, Matthew Marsh, Richard Sanderson, Bobby Lockwood, Mikey Collins, Dean Ridge, Adam Long, Bradley Hall, Miranda Nolan. Directed by Christopher Nolan

 

Dunkirk remains one of the seminal moments in the Second World War. Churchill’s stirring speech “We shall never surrender!” was written about the event. For those whose history is rusty, when the Nazis overran France some 400,000 soldiers were stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk. With Hitler’s troops drawing the noose tight, the English were staring at the obliteration of most of their army and essentially the complete loss of Western Europe.

Nolan aims to capture the desperation and chaos of those few days using three time-dilated stories each centered around a single element; a week following soldiers waiting to die or be rescued on the jetty and on the beach, a day aboard one of the civilian rescue vessels desperately trying to ferry as many soldiers back to safety as possible, this one captained by the noble Mr. Dawson (Rylance) and an hour in the air with a pair of daring RAF pilots (Hardy, Lowden) trying to take out the Luftwaffe planes trying to bomb and strafe the beaches and the British naval vessels trying to evacuate the troops.

Like Memento, Nolan uses time differently than most linear storytelling techniques in order to….well, I’m not quite sure. It is confusing at times to follow the goings on when you are jumping ahead and back in time depending on whether you’re in a boat, plane or beach. It also leads to a curious difficulty in telling the different characters apart for the most part; the soldiers and sailors are all fresh faced and largely unknown with a few exceptions and those exceptions tend to stand out, particularly Rylance and to a lesser extent, Branagh as a stolid Naval commander and Murphy as a shell-shocked soldier pulled out of the ocean by Rylance.

The technical achievement here is impressive, maybe even mind-blowing. I’m not just talking about the special effects but on all the elements of the film, from the lighting (often utilizing a washed out pastel color palate that gives a visual accounting of the hopelessness of the waiting soldiers) to the way the shots are lined up to the sound design to the way there’s virtually no let-up in the tension from the opening shot to the closing credits.

Some of the few remaining Dunkirk survivors who viewed the film at its London premiere observed that the sound wasn’t quite as loud during the real bombing and strafing which apparently Nolan found amusing and when you think about it, has a ring of the “Turn down that music ya whippersnappers” to it. Not that I’m an expert but this may be the most authentic war movie since the D-day scene in Saving Private Ryan raised the bar on war movies in general.

There was talk this was going to be an Oscar contender way back in July when this was released and to that end Warner Brothers is planning a re-release to remind Academy voters not to forget about this film among all the year-end prestige releases. And, for those wondering, that is also why it hasn’t been released to home video just yet. If you haven’t seen it in a theater, by all means make a point to do so when the re-release occurs. You won’t be sorry.

REASONS TO GO: This may be the most realistic depiction of war since Saving Private Ryan. The tension generated here is absolutely relentless. Rylance has become one of the most reliable actors working today.
REASONS TO STAY: Those sensitive to loud noises may have issues with this.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some very intense war violence as well as occasional profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie directed by Nolan to portray real events.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 94/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Longest Day
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Diana: Our Mother, Her Life and Her Legacy

The Red Baron (Der rote Baron)


The bloody Red Baron on the prowl for Snoopy.

The bloody Red Baron on the prowl for Snoopy.

(2008) Biographical Drama (Monterey Media) Matthias Schweighofer, Til Schweiger, Lena Headey, Joseph Fiennes, Maxim Mehmet, Hanno Kofler, Volker Bruch, Richard Krajko, Steffan Schroeder, Lukas Prizkazky, Iveta Jirickova, Vlastina Svatkova, Axel Prahl, Gitta Schweighofer, Brano Holicek, Julie Engelbrecht, Jan Vlasak, Luise Bahr, Irena Machova. Directed by Nikolai Muellerschoen

During the First World War, it wasn’t just a collision of nations. It was the 19th century being pulled forward, violently, into the 20th. The concepts of nobility and civility were turned around by the nose by the realities of brutal, modern warfare.

Baron Manfred von Richtofen (Schweighofer) came from the German nobility, but nonetheless had a fascination with flying. While most of his class would be joining the cavalry – a gentleman’s pursuit – von Richtofen was firm that when World War I started, he would join the Imperial German Air Service, the predecessor of the Luftwaffe. That was where, he felt, he belonged and his success showed him to be correct. With his brother Lothar (Bruch) and friends Werner Voss (Schweiger) and Friedrich Sternberg (Mehmet) at his side, he had formed the Flying Circus, a brigade second to none in shooting down enemy planes during the war.

One such victim was Captain Roy Brown (Fiennes) of Canada. Von Richtofen pulled the wounded flyer from the wreckage of his plane and with the assistance of passing nurse Kate Otersdorf (Headey) helps apply a tourniquet to his leg before leaving the Canadian in the care of the nurse.

Von Richtofen is appalled when his Lothar strafes and kills an enemy pilot who had already been forced down. Later he gets into a dogfight with Brown who had escaped the German POW camp that he’d been taken to after being nursed to health by Kate. Once again von Richtofen shoots down the Canadian and lands to see if he’s all right, damaging his own plane in the process. In No-Man’s land, the two share a friendly drink at which time the Red Baron, as he has come to be called by the Allies, discovers that the nurse who’d tended to Brown was in love with the dashing German air fighter

Upon his return, von Richtofen receives the news that his friend Sternberg has been shot down and killed, which sends the Baron into an emotional tailspin, much to Lothar’s disgust. During an ensuing dogfight, von Richtofen is wounded in the skull and sent to be cared for – but you can guess who now can’t you?

As Kate and Manfred begin to grow closer, Kate is disturbed by von Richtofen’s cavalier attitude towards the war. She takes him on a tour of the hospital and gives him a tongue lashing for treating the war like a game. As his friends and protégés continue to be shot down like flies, the Red Baron discovers that he is being used by the German high command to sell a war they can’t win. When he speaks out to his commanding officers about it, he is sent back to active combat after having been offered a position in the Rear Echelon. So back to the skies he takes for a final date with destiny.

This is a gorgeously shot film that makes the most of its aerial footage. Some of those sequences are really well-shot (the ones with practical aircraft), although the CGI dogfights are unconvincing for the most part. This was one of the most expensive movies made in Germany to this date (and also one of the biggest flops) but it doesn’t appear much of the budget went to computer effects.

The dialogue is also cringe-inducing and florid. For example, at one point a melancholy Manfred tells Kate “You are my greatest triumph” as he prepares to march off to his doom. Cue weepy violins. Of course, it might have been more meaningful had there been an actual romance between the two. All that is really known is that there was a nurse named Kate Otersdorf and von Richtofen knew her. How romantic the relationship was is subject to conjecture; there are no records and no correspondence confirming it. Certainly there could have been but the very class-conscious von Richtofen might not have been amenable to a relationship with someone of a lower social class.

And about the real von Richtofen. Yes, there’s no doubt that he was a gentleman of his time but the chivalry that he espoused was a lot different than what we think of the term today. Not only did he not get angry about strafing enemy pilots, he encouraged it. He often targeted pilots once the gunner had been taken out; that was a way of ensuring that the pilot wouldn’t live to fight another day. While he felt camaraderie with enemy pilots and often saluted them as antagonists, he had a war to win and knew that in order to win it Germany must have control of the skies.

Still, it is pleasant to see combatants portrayed in such a manner and there is no doubt that enemies treated each other with greater respect back then than they do now. In some ways, The Red Baron is a bit of an anachronism in its own way as having Captain Brown exclaim to Manfred “She has the hots for you!” The filmmakers try hard to make an inspiring, thrilling war epic but sadly end up making the movie look like just another bloated, failed war picture that has enough going for it to be worth a look but not enough to look all that hard for it.

WHY RENT THIS: Some nice aerial footage. Heroic portrayal of a bygone age.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Stilted dialogue. A few too many historical liberties.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of wartime violence and some sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the movie was a German production shot in Eastern Europe, the dialogue was shot in English in hopes of attracting an international audience.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on the real Red Baron.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $40,239 on a $22.4M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Rent DVD/Rent Blu-Ray/Stream), Amazon (not available), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Blue Max
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Interstellar

Red Tails


Red Tails

The Tuskegee Airmen, circa 2012.

(2012) War (20th Century Fox) Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard, Bryan Cranston, Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, Tristan Wilds, Cliff Smith, Rick Phillips, Ne-Yo, Lee Tergesen, Daniela Ruah, Elijah Kelly, Marcus T. Paulk, Andre Royo, Gerald McRaney, Michael B. Jordan. Directed by Anthony Hemingway

 

The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is one of the most inspiring ones to come out of the Second World War. An all-black Air Squadron in the U.S. Army Air Corps (kind of a precursor to the Air Force which didn’t exist at the time), the group encountered prejudice and the prevailing attitude that African-Americans were incapable of learning the complex workings of the fighter planes and were cowardly in nature, certain to turn tail and run in combat. Spurious studies done by the U.S. Army War College apparently supported that myth.

Most people who saw the brilliant HBO movie The Tuskegee Airmen will know that the Airmen shattered that myth, posting one of the proudest records of any squadron in the war. They protected the bombers that were dropping the smackdown on Hitler and saved uncountable lives; not just the men in the bombers but the soldiers on the ground as well for whom the war was shortened because the bombers were able to do their work.

It’s high time that the Tuskegee Airmen got a proper treatment on the big screen and George Lucas, creator of the Star Wars saga, has been trying to do just that since the 1980s. However, studios were reluctant to approve a big-budget movie with an all African-American cast – it seems some battles remain un-won in the struggle.

Unfortunately, the movie that Lucas placed in the hands of first-time feature director Hemingway (who has helmed the justly acclaimed “Treme” series for HBO) falls way short of the mark. I’m not even sure where to begin with it. The script I guess for starters; it’s cliché and full of cut-out characters taken from war movies of bygone times. It’s predictable in the extreme, lacking in either vision or creativity. For whatever reason, Lucas opted to go with a fictional version of the Airmen and these Airmen lack depth and are even worse, uninteresting.

Howard fares best as Maj. Bullard, the squadron commander. He at least has some life in what he does and commands screen attention. Gooding, who was in the HBO version of the story, uses a pipe to distraction, substituting props for creating a genuine character. He sleepwalks through the part, lacking his usual energy.

Lucas is well-known for his dogfight sequences in the Star Wars movies and has said in interviews that the fights in this movie are as close as we’re going to ever come to an Episode VII in that series. If that’s the case, it’s a good thing they cut it off after six. The CGI is not just bad, it’s embarrassing. It never looks very realistic at all; it looks like a ten-year-old videogame.

For some odd reason, it appears that Terence Blanchard, who composed the score, went for a beat-heavy synthesized score rather than something more period-friendly. It’s distracting which is not what you want from a score; it should enhance the film experience, not be noticed for all the wrong reasons.

I can understand wishing to make an action movie based on the exploits of the Airmen; that would expose the squadron to a wider audience, theoretically. That’s admirable, but at least if you’re going to do that, give that wider audience a movie they’re going to want to not only see in theaters but recommend to friends.

There is an elephant in the room about this movie that I guess I’m going to address here. I’m a white critic criticizing a nearly all-African American film. To say that I don’t like the movie doesn’t mean I don’t like the subject, or that I don’t like African-Americans. I have nothing but respect for the accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen; I just wish they had a better film that honors those accomplishments.

REASONS TO GO: Howard lends some dignity and restraint.

REASONS TO STAY: Where to begin? Poorly acted, amateurish CGI, one of the most annoying film scores ever, a movie-of-the-week plot…the story of the Tuskegee Airmen deserved a better movie.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of war violence, some of it gruesome and there’s also some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: George Lucas has been developing the story since 1988; since studios have not been willing to finance the project, he has put his own money into making the film, almost $100 million for production and marketing.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/29/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 46/100. The reviews are bad to mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miracle at St. Anna

AERIAL COMBAT LOVERS: There are a few scenes in which you get an idea of the chaotic nature of WW2 dogfights.

FINAL RATING: 2/10

TOMORROW: El Bulli: Cooking in Progress