Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Red Tails

Why We Fight
The Brother Gets It First*

Like Francis Ford Coppola's Tucker: The Man and His Dream (which he also financed), Red Tails is the movie that George Lucas has waited the longest to make.  In development even before the "Star Wars" prequels, the story of the Tuskeegee Airmen has been on Lucas' mainframe for over 20 years.  And as with most director "Dream Projects," this one had the potential to soar into great summits of excellence or tail-spin into an exercise of excess and pretentiousness.
Red Tails is neither one of those, but it does do some interesting things along the way.  Respectful of the airmen, and "gung-ho" enough to end with "America The Beautiful" playing out over the End Titles,  it does remind one, in spirit, of the old war films, that appeared during and immediately after the second world war,** tough, haggard, slightly cranky, and all-too-willing to bring up some risky aspects of the vet's experience that would be tossed under the rug of homilies that later "recruitment" war films would present.  At the same time, it plays things a bit safe, dramatically, while, in subtle ways, taking chances that modern audiences—thank God—might not be aware of.***  It follows a typically diverse group of air-men with defining cliches—the "hot-shot" (David Oyelowo), the alcoholic (Nate Parker), "the kid" (Tristan Wilds"the yokel" (Ne-Yo)—through their story-arcs, fighting on two fronts—against the Nazis and their own brass and fellow soldiers, who, if not wanting to shoot the pilots out of the sky, didn't want them in the air in the first place.

One good thing that sets Red Tails apart from the other "yes, they fought too" films is there's no "white-wash" element (as one finds in a good effort like Glory, where a forgotten story about the participation of black soldiers in the Civil War, has to feature Matthew Broderick and Cary Elwes over Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Andre Braugher). These guys are on their own. There's no angelic white-devil's advocate that has to make the condescending "these are men" speech and, if anything, here, the white guys are pushing against back, making this film a lot more dramatic than your standard "liberal guilt" trip, where everybody's mind miraculously changes once "they're" "given a chance."****  The pressure never lets up on them and the only time they don't have to be on the defensive is in the air, fighting. Their inclusion in the war effort is a convenience, taking pressure off the other guys, and nothing noble. Doesn't matter to the pilots, though, as long as they're free of Earthly bonds, fingers on the triggers and Nazi Aryans in their sights.

And the battle scenescomplex, nasty and dangerous as the dog-fights are— are where Red Tails excels.  The same visceral energy of the Death Star battles (which were pre-visualized with edited WWII dogfight footage) is here, but with a rougher edge, bumpier, and more of a sense of true danger than a battle in space could provide.

Why'd it take so long?  Probably because Lucas wanted to do this one right (and also because studios were reluctant to finance a movie this black-centric), so he took the back-seat producer job, wrote the frame-work, hired John Ridley to write it and director Anthony Hemingway to film it, then doing some re-shoots (reportedly written with "Boondocks" creator Aaron McGruder) to do some dramatic streamlining.*****  Usually, it works with Lucas projects, especially when the director is strong, like Spielberg; there's a dramatic frisson that happens when it's not a "one-man/one-vision" project—something that was missing from the "Star Wars" Prequels, which suffered from too many "yes-men"—and Lucasfilms always seem to be better when he has to compromise and think off the top of his head...or someone else's.

One still gets a sense, though, of pandering.  The film Tuskeegee's don't need the "hey, these guys are good" comments that drop like leaden bombs throughout the film's second half.  As an audience, we can see it, we don't need to have it re-inforced by the white pilots they're escorting, especially considering those flight sequences are the best thing in the film.  The energy, thrills and derring-do (with their frequent "Yahoo" moments) are far more emotionally satisfying and communicative of the pilots' excellence.  Those sequences make Red Tails reach great heights, when everything else is trying to keep it grounded.  They didn't play it safe.  There's no good reason the film should.

Red Tails is a Rental.

The first wave of Tuskegee pilots

* A variation of the "trope" "Black Dude Dies First," which is a truism in "easy" drama and always struck me as being seminally racist.  In a war situation, with an all-black cast, it isn't true, and feels far less manipulative than in most war films.  In this war film, people die because "war is dangerous and people die in war."  It's random, unfair, and serves no purpose—not even dramatically.  That was an important take-way from this particular war film.

** This was in the 1940's, kids.

*** It's a bit soapish, but there's a romance between "hot-shot" pilot "Lightning" and an Italian girl, where nothing (blissfully) is mentioned about race, making the sequence seem idyllic, but also not clueing modern audiences in to the fact that if the same events happened in the country the pilots were fighting for, he would have stood a good chance of going to prison or being lynched for it.  It passes without comment or explanation, which might be dramatically risky, but sure feels good.  Real progress is made when the un-usual becomes commonplace and antique words like "miscegenation" disappear like disgarded, rusty tools.  Racial prejudice is SO "last century."

**** Even so, there's still a little too much of it, done mostly in voice-over behind masks, as if in post-production after-thought.  The screen-actions speak louder than any number of patronizing words.

***** Not sure where those sequences are—I'd only be speculating—but at one point "the kid" is shot down and put in a Nazi POW camp—the same camp that was the origination of the events and the film of The Great Escape.  Amusingly, there is one sequence that looks shot-for-shot like a sequence from the John Sturges film with "the kid" in the role played by Steve McQueen!  Heh.

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