Monday, January 23, 2012

Movie Monday: Red Tails

This week's movie is the just-released WWII drama Red Tails!

I had another movie lined up for this week's Movie Monday installment, but over the weekend I saw the George Lucas-produced Red Tails, a "passion project" if there ever was one--supposedly Lucas had been developing it for over twenty years. Unable to convince any studio that a war film with an all-black cast would be marketable, Lucas financed it himself--as well as doing some second-unit directing and (supposedly) working on the screenplay as well.
Red Tails tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, a real-life all-black unit of fighter pilots, the first of its kind. Right from the first scene and the opening credits--which are done in an incredibly straightforward, almost plain (is that Helvetica?) style--the tone is set for an old school WWII adventure. I sat back in my seat, almost giddy with anticipation: I wanted nothing more than to be told a classic, rip-roarin' WWII adventure, but with an added dollop of real life social commentary.

Red Tails is old school all right--so old school at times that the film approaches Dada-esque proportions. The main characters are a handful of the airman, all with easy-to-remember code names: Easy, Junior, Joker, Deacon, and Lightning, who is the hot dog of the group:
We learn from the get-go that the brass has no faith the Red Tails; they keep assigning them boring, almost useless missions, using ancient planes. Col. A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) is fighting an uphill battle getting his superiors to give the Red Tails a real mission, to show what they can do. One of the brass is played by Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston, who in no uncertain terms lets Bullard know that African-Americans are not fit, mentally or emotionally, for important missions.

But Bullard keeps fighting and arguing, and eventually gets the Red Tails assigned to a minor mission, which they perform spectacularly. This gets them assigned another mission, then another, and by the end of the film they are sent to the big show--Berlin, Germany.
To say the characters in Red Tails are paper-thin would be an understatement. In many ways, its as if there have been no war films made in the last forty years--Red Tails feels like it was produced in the rah-rah, fight-the-good-fight era of the 1940s, its so unbelievably square. Cuba Gooding Jr. plays the Red Tails' immediate commander, Major Stance, whose main job is to chomp on his pipe.
The only moments where Red Tails feels "modern" is in the scenes where the pilots encounter brutal, direct racism: at one point, Lightning enters a G.I. bar, only to be called a racial slur and pushed out (which he responds to with a series of punches). In fact, there are so many scenes like this it feels as though the entire U.S. Army is a bunch of racists--a stark contrast to how the veterans of WWII are generally portrayed in modern war films.

There are minor conflicts: the flight commander, known as Easy, drinks too much. Lightning refuses to follow orders; we also follow him into a small Italian town where he falls in love with a white girl (Daniela Rush), which seems to cause not a whiff of strife.

The dialogue in Red Tails is so basic its bewildering. At one point, after Lightning has defied orders (again!) and bombed a Nazi air strip, he flies by, close enough for one of the German pilots (whose cheek has a giant scar) to see him. After Lightning's plane whizzes by, the German yells "Those pilots are African!"

The dogfight scenes are well-staged (to be expected, considering who produced the film), but they rarely contain any tension: the Red Tails seem so brilliant as a fighting squad that they don't seem really at risk; no one seems to ever be scared, and when one of them does die in the line of duty, it makes the rest of the squad sad for a few minutes, and then it's over.
The film's episodic nature also works against it: the Red Tails get a mission, then another, then another. It makes the two-hour film seem so much longer, and the final climactic mission doesn't feel any more important or tense than the ones that preceded it.

As sad as it is to say, I have to think the rumors that Lucas had a hand in the screenplay are true; and the evidence is the final film. As I mentioned above, the dialogue at times is so bizarrely simple and so unlike how people talk that parts of it reminded me of some of the groaners heard in the later Star Wars films.

Entire sequences go by with so little drama invested that its startling--one Red Tail is taken prisoner, sent to a POW camp, escapes, and makes his way back to his unit, all in about five minutes of screen time. The aforementioned Bryan Cranston is completely wasted in a cardboard role; he's a racist, that's it. Some of the actors fare better, but with a screenplay like this its hard to say how good or bad any of them are at their roles. David Oyelowo, as Lightning, comes off best, but that's probably because he gets the most to do. We see him fall in love with his Italian bride, but we don't know why (I mean, she's gorgeous, but surely there had to be more than that...)

All that said, I cannot completely dismiss Red Tails--the film is so earnest, so guileless in its desire to tell the true story of these brave men that I came away liking it, even though as I watched it I knew that it was failing as a film in almost every way (it was hard to judge the acting; since even the finest actors look weak when reciting bad dialogue).

Many reviews of the film have said this story, because it is so important, deserves a more realistic approach, and I can't argue with that (I haven't seen the 1995 HBO film about the same subject, The Tuskegee Airmen, which featured, among others...Cuba Gooding Jr.), but dammit, I still kinda liked Red Tails.

Maybe because I went into Red Tails wanting to like it so bad that I'm simply blinded to how weak the film is. I have to admit, when I saw this promo poster for it (by my former art teacher, the legendary Joe Kubert), I started to get my hopes up:
...sadly, nothing in Red Tails matches the grit and gut-level, you-are-there drama seen in the poster above. I hate to say this, but I have to wonder what kind of film we would have gotten if George Lucas had turned it over to someone else.

His heart was clearly in the right place, and Lucas deserves all the credit in the world for putting his money where his mouth is, getting the film produced (and, in my theater at least, he was right about how marketable Red Tails is--the screening I attended was packed). But the results are sadly reminiscent of what (to me) marred the Star Wars prequels--clunky pacing, leaden dialogue, and nearly transparent characters. The Red Tails--both the real men and the movie versions--deserved better.

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