George Lucas says he's abandoning the idea of more Star Wars installments. And if that prospect bothers you then maybe you should see this movie. Because while it's set during World War II and based on the true story of the all-African-American Tuskegee airmen and their heroic deeds fighting the Germans in the face of blatant military racism, while it's directed by Anthony Hemingway (a veteran TV man with shows like CSI:NY, Treme and The Wire under his belt) and co-written by Boondocks mastermind Aaron McGruder, it's still covered with producer Lucas's fingerprints, right down to the Buck Rogers toy ray gun one its characters keeps close by for good luck.
Want lots of scenes of fighter pilots embodying all the early gee-whiz of Luke Skywalker or the tougher, go-for-it swagger of Han Solo? It's here. Need Darth Vader? There are Nazis. A lone Leia? The film delivers a beautiful Italian woman in love with the most renegade of the fly-boys (British actor David Oyelowo). And honestly, none of those elements are bad all by themselves.
Most people don't know that the Tuskegee men existed at all. If you question the average American about the history of institutionalized racism in the United States, they won't be able to tell you a thing about segregated armed forces or the about the title card that opens the film, one that quotes a study done in 1925 that smeared African Americans as "intellectually inferior" and marked by a tendency to be cowardly. That makes the fact that this film exists at all worthy of attention. It's a chapter of American history you don't hear much about, strange when you consider that the appetite for World War II nostalgia is never sated. So for a man of Lucas's clout to spend as much time as he did getting it to the big screen, with a wide opening from a major studio, is just good news in general.
And now the bad news: It's shallow, packed with characters we never learn much about and focused on cool battles at the expense of deeper historical context. Meanwhile, in spite of its vintage setting, everything feels weirdly digital. From the cockpit shots to the strange "Italian" backdrops to the crispy bright images to the corny, awkward dialogue, not much of this feels like it's coming from The Land of 1944. And its two biggest names do a lot of Not Much when it comes to anchoring anything on screen to reality. Terrence Howard's Colonel character feels like a man informed by a futuristic sense of defiance and Cuba Gooding Jr. just hides behind a gravitas pipe that never leaves his mouth.
But when they're flying, when the large ensemble cast is in the air, blowing up Nazi planes and getting into dogfights, when they're bravely escorting bombers or giving their lives for their country, when it all shifts into gear and feels like the rousing final battle of Lucas's first space adventure (or, more appropriately, like one of the old Why We Fight films from World War II itself), that's when everything else dragging it down is forgiven. It's a well-meaning mixed bag, but if it leads to more interest in the subject, maybe to a well put together miniseries, then we'll all forget about that goofy pipe.