Dieselpunk + Steampunk Culture

I saw this yesterday, and I thought it might be of interest to the Dieselpunk community. It's an unabashedly retro-styled, old-fashioned, somewhat subversive film about the Tuskegee Airmen and their service during WWII. It paints these men as true heroes in a way that you do not see very often in films nowadays. Not to say that the main characters do not have their faults (one is an alcoholic and the other is a hot-head show-off), but when they are in the air, the film shows their bravery and courage in a way that is very inspirational. Many of the air-battle scenes were actually based off of real events, particularly the final one.

I know the movie has gotten a lot of negative critical reviews, but I think a lot of it has to do with many reviewers missing the fact that this is not a movie made in a modern style. In fact, it is intentionally very retro. George Lucas and others involved in it's production have said publicly before it's release that it was meant to be seen as an intentionally "corny" flag-waving movie that was "filmed in the 1940s and 1950s" that just so happened to have incredible special effects and released today. In a way, it's almost dieselpunk in that regard, mixing the attitudes of today and yesterday. It utilizes many tropes seen in movies from that era, and in a way, also subverts them. There is a romance in the movie that is reminiscent of the sometimes corny romances from that period, but also subverts that trope in that it's an interracial romance, something you'd never see in films from that era. There is also some racial tension, something that was very real back in those days, but never shown. The film doesn't focus on that, though, and instead focuses on the way these men overcame the odds by letting their considerable flying and fighting skills, and not what other people think of them based on their race, do the talking. One scene that illustrates that, I believe, is when a group of bomber pilots, who originally thought that the Red Tails were going to disappoint them, were so impressed by their skills that they invited them to their officer's club for drinks, where one of the Red Tails was originally thrown out of due to his race, and the Red Tails are then seen as their equals.

The "feel" of this movie is based off of post-war films such as John Wayne's Flying Leathernecks and Spencer Tracy's Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. Very gung-ho. Very patriotic.There isn't much of the grey areas between opposing factions you see in modern war films. There's very little grey areas between the Allies and Axis. In fact, most of the grey areas in the movie appear in the relations within the allies, while the Nazis, in particular, a Nazi ace pilot that is a reoccurring antagonist, are portrayed as sneering and villainous. It's a bit striking to see such distinctions in a film when you take it in a modern context, but when you look at it as it's meant to be seen, deliberately old-fashioned, then it's a clear stylistic choice.

The film is visually striking in many different ways. The special effects are very impressive, par for the course of ILM, the special effects house. But I couldn't help noticing that something was very different about this movie. And then I found out. This film is colorful. Very colorful. You often do not see colorful films nowadays, especially in war films. Most of the war films in recent memory are often monochromatic, heavily washed-out and bleach-processed. Not so with this movie. In fact, I think that was intentional in keeping with it's retro style. It's almost a technicolor-look. I think it's because films that have a washed-out color palate are usually very serious, somber movies that focus on the "war is hell" motif, while this one focuses on the heroics. It's not to say there isn't any somber reflections on the brutality of war, some deaths are shown in a very realistic way. But, again, this isn't a film that focuses on that.

I think the first thing that subtly tells the audience that this isn't a modern-style film are the beginning credits, which are done in a way that I haven't seen since at least the 1960s. I'm a graphic designer, so I have an eye for these sort of things.

The music is also very old-school. Much of it is rousing marches that wouldn't be out of place in the 40s, 50s and 60s. And there is some digital instrumentation to it that I find to be an interesting, subversive touch, showing the mix of present and past that this film is trying to do.

The acting is, overall, very strong. The main group of fighter pilots have a very relaxed relationship amongst each other and there is a strong sense of brotherhood. Each one has their unique traits. There's the "by-the-books" leader guy, Easy. There's the hothead daredevil, Lightning. There's the rookie, Raygun. There's the joker, who is, of course, Joker. And, of course, the inspiring and tough commander. All tried and true cliches, but the actors do a good job at giving them three-dimensionality. You can see these guys as being real-life people.

There is some drama involving higher-ups, as the Colonel in charge of the Tuskegee Airmen, played by Terrance Howard, tries to get the top brass in Washington to give the Red Tails opportunity to show what they are capable of after a long time of being placed far behind the front lines with old planes. The movie shows how the media was critical of the money being placed on the Tuskegee Experiment when there was nothing being shown to make up for it, due to the fact that they weren't even given a chance to do so. This is all based on true events. When the top brass finally lets the Red Tails have new planes and are given more of a front line role, that's when they truly begin to shine.

The air-battles are incredible and are probably the most visually modern parts of the film. They showcase action that couldn't be done in older films and succeeds because of that. I guarantee you'll be on the edge of your seat during these sequences.

Overall, I'd have to say that this movie is quite good, despite the negative reviews it's been getting. There are some pacing issues, to be sure. Some scenes could've been focused on a little bit more, while other scenes could've been trimmed. The romance subplot feels a bit tacked-on at times, the movie would've done well without it. It's also a bit corny and somewhat rushed, but it's a throwback to the romantic subplots of post-war war-movies, so it can be somewhat excused, I believe. There is also a subplot where the rookie is sent to a POW camp and he escapes in a way very similar to "The Great Escape". I'm not sure how similar that is to actual events or if it was added as an homage to old-fashioned movies. In any case, that part could've been done with a little more finesse. However, outside of those two subplots, the film is strong.

This is a movie that, I think, successfully pulls off what it was intended to do. It's intended to be an old-fashioned throwback to gung-ho flag-waving films of the post-war period that celebrates a group of brave, courageous heroes who are not as well-known as they should be. This movie isn't meant to be a modern-style film, which is something that other reviewers have missed. This isn't anything like Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers. Both, while very good and realistic, are made with modern attitudes in mind. This movie was made with the attitudes of the mid-20th century in mind, while subverting those same attitudes by giving voice to a group of heroes who didn't have a voice in that period.

In a way, I think this movie can be compared well with 1990's Memphis Belle. It has a similar tone, look and feel. I think that these films would make for a good double-feature.

Overall, I'd recommend you leave any preconceived notions at the door. This is a popcorn flick through and through. And, I think, once you leave the theater, no matter what you think of the film, you'll have a greater respect for these great heroes, who deserve all the thanks they can get.

If you wish to support the Tuskegee Airmen and their legacy, please visit http://tuskegeeairmen.org/ and join as a member or give a donation.

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Comment by Doc Spencer on January 24, 2012 at 10:20am
Thank you kindly for the review Clinton. I really can't wait to see this movie now. The trailer was posted on here sometime last year and that whetted my appetite. I must find out when it's released in the UK and go watch it.

I have fond memories of watching Memphis Belle way back when, they filmed it at an old RAF base near my home town and I went to the premier at the local movie theatre. That was an old style Odeon cinema which when I think back now was stylistically appropriate! Thanks again for the review, I'm looking forward to watching!
Comment by Clinton on January 23, 2012 at 12:20pm

Haven't seen it, so I can't compare. Apparently though, they are two very different movies, and are made with different motives in mind. I think the Lawrence Fishburne one is more of a historically-accurate docudrama, while this one is more of an action/adventure movie that is filmed in an old-fashioned way, with a big emphasis on heroism, but it doesn't skimp on the social message. I believe the (mostly African-American) filmmakers have said that they made it to give African-American kids (and other kids as well) real-life heroes, that they might not have know about, to look up to.

Comment by Cap'n Tony on January 23, 2012 at 9:44am

Great review! I love the 332nd and I need to see this.

How does it compare to the old Lawrence Fishburn Tuskegee Airmen movie?

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