Howard Hughes, among others, understood the value of a good aerial dogfight 80 years ago or so. RED TAILS, inspired by the actual exploits of the first African-American flying squadron, is full of them and every one of them underscores why they are so appealing. They are well-choreographed, beautifully photographed, with excellent effects and the sort of barrel rolls and swelling music that befit an action/adventure flick that hearkens back to the sort of war films that Hollywood churned out during World War II with an unselfconscious, dewy-eyed patriotism.
The story, too, follows the familiar tropes and idioms of that time. Perhaps a little too closely, alas, for its own good. Terrence Howard is in the Spencer Tracey role. Cuba Gooding, Jr., puffing worridly on his pipe with furrowed brow,is in the one Raymond Massey might have essayed, and David Oyelowo is Errol Flynn. For all that, the patriotism is still as unselfconscious, though less dewy-eyed.
Instead of Yanks having to prove themselves to their Blitz-battered British counterparts, though, or rookies needing to prove themselves to their battle-hardened countrymen, its African-Americans proving that they are just as good as the white guys. That they are just as eager to make their mark fighting the evil Germans has a particular poignance. In a deliberate choice, there are no prolonged conversations about the fact that the country they are so willing to fight and die for does not consider them fully human, nor the attendant questioning of why they should then be so willing to fight and die for that country. There is plenty of racism, though, to make up for that, with the dignity of Howard speaking his mind with quiet conviction to a commanding officer who has insulted him to his face, and Oyelowo pushing the color line by entering an officers club and then starting a brawl when the expected epithets are hurled.
The Red Tails are part of the Tuskeegee Airmen, an Army experiment headed for the dustbin until fate and Col. Bullard (Howard) conspire to keep the program alive. Demanding new planes, instead of the hand-me-downs supplied them, and following a new strategy when guarding Flying Fortresses on bombing runs, naturally the Red Tails exceed expectations. This does not prevent the usual sorts of dramatic conflicts from erupting within squad. Lightning (Oyelowo) is a hot-shot ladies man courting the comely Italian girl he spots from his airplane. Easy (Nate Parker) struggles with both the high standards his father has set for him and the bottle. Junior (Tristan Wilds) wants to be taken seriously. And so forth and so on. The dialogue is hopelessly hackneyed, the situations, even moreso, as tragedies strike or are averted, lessons about the unimportance of race are learned, the evil German ace is not only blonde, but also has the stereotypical scar, and the only surprises are that there arent any.
On the bright side, the sight of a sky full of planes swerving, swooping, and engaging in graceful, ferocious battle is thrilling. The actors imbue the characters with a sense of life and purpose that far exceeds what the script offers them, and darn if that literal flag-waving at the end isnt affecting. Its not enough to save RED TAILS from being a glorious failure, but it saves it from being a total loss.