Red Tails (2012) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
21Jan/120

Red Tails (2012)

"...negroes are incapable of bravery."
-Memorandum for the Chief of Staff regarding Employment of
Negro Man Power in War, November 10, 1925-
"That's bullshit."
-Guy in the seat behind me, January 20, 2012-

Red Tails, for all of its faults, admirably goes on to show just how correct the gentleman in the second quote is and how stupid the first quote always was.  It's a "gee whiz" summer action flick released in the dead of winter when the ice is falling from the sky in BB-sized bits and audiences clamor in from the cold to feel a little better about everything.  For those who find themselves in Red Tails, good for you, I hope you leave applauding like the crowd I attended the film with.

In spite of the many flaws present in the film, this was a great entertainment to start the year off with.  True, it hits a lot of the same tired story beats we're all too familiar with (you can see the death clock ticking away over one character after he gets engaged), and the quieter moments lack any sort of nuance.  But, when all is said and done, so what?  The film is done with style, giving weight and heft to the first chapters of the Tuskegee Airmen with clarity and joy, if not exactly burdened by the weight of historical expectation.

Make no mistake about it, there is very little gray area in this film.  One character drinks a bit too much and another is a hothead, but these flaws never seem to impede the results of any mission flow intoxicated or angry.  If anything the film subverts these notions by noting one of the only failures to be when both pilots were flying sober and clear of rage.  The lesson to be taken here?  Death is random and talented flyers may face the wrong end of a machine gun no matter what their mental or physical state.

Yhe Tuskegee's are represented by the top brass fighting to get them quality missions and equipment (Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr.), the experienced and jaded pilots (Nate Parker and David Oyelowo), and the grunts that keep them up in the air (led by the excellent Andre Royo).  With a cast this size and a limited time to work with them, we just get the tiniest glimpse of the personalities of most of the characters, but enough to make each one recognizable beyond a single defining trait.  Granted, they're not terribly complex, but it's enough so that between the cast of some 20 Airmen I was never confused about who the story was following.

For example, in this scene Terrence Howard is clearly contemplative.

The flight scenes are where the film really shines.  Keeping in line with the "no tiny emotions" spectrum of film-making the dogfights are knuckle-biting fun.  There are no easy movements and, aside from a sketchy set of cuts in the first flight against the Germans, the action is smooth and easy to follow, giving a strong sense of the aerial ballet needed to kill and not get shot in the process.

Equally entertaining are the villains on the philosophical and war-time fronts.  Bryan Cranston makes the most out of his four minutes of onscreen as the racist American officer sporting a near-Hitler mustache (definitely not a subtle touch).  Then there is the unnamed German uber-pilot (Lars van Riesen) - a man with a glare so intense, a facial scar so intimindating, and a name so unknowable the other pilots dub him "Pretty Boy".  There's no subtlety in either portrayal but they're damn fun and illuminating of the prejudices against the Tuskegee's at the time.

All this isn't to say Red Tails doesn't get in it's subtle visual punches against racism.  I liked an early scene that showed the junkers the Tuskegee's had to fly and still maintain a high level of skill.  Even smaller is the great detail about how the Tuskegee's found out their program may be suspended.  It's in a newspaper, on page 9, in print and size smaller than a story about a missing 16-year old white boy.  The film is full of really small details like that which hit home just how little their skills are appreciated.

Now as much as I've praised the film, and I very much enjoyed it from start to finish, there are some glaring problems you need to be aware of.  First and foremost is the single most useless romantic subplot I have seen this side of a bad cop drama (also probably starring poor Cuba).  It's an absolute waste of time, adding nothing to already interesting characters and padding out the film an unnecessary extra 15 minutes.  Not quite as bad but still annoying is the films' distressing tendency to resolve entire subplots off-screen.  A prison break is orchestrated and executed in between shots of the slow romance in Italy - not a very fair trade-off.

There are many performers in this shot.  Some will be great.  Some will be horrible.  Godspeed, gentle viewer.

Finally, with a cast this large, the acting is going to swing wildly from one extreme to another.  My favorite was Andre Royo, as the mechanic coffee, who manages to ground his character in optimistic hardness to offset the flyboys.  But the lead, Nate Parker, is horrible.  He gives flat, uninterested line readings to some of the most dramatic portions of the film and gives no reason to really care about his position in the squadron.  He's offset by David Oyelowo, who has a nervy charm I liked despite being saddled with the before-mentioned horrible romance subplot.

As much as I've tried to shut other critics out of my head, too many people have told me "not realistic" or "not close enough to the true story".  To this I echo the sentiments of the man who sat behind me and say bullshit.  Red Tails is rousing entertainment that's not perfect, but a great cure for winter doldrums with enough intelligence to please even the hardest cineaste.

Red Tails (2012)
Directed by Anthony Hemingway.
Screenplay by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder.
Starring Terrence Howard,  Nate Parker, David Oyelowo, and Cuba Gooding Jr.

Posted by Andrew

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