Dramatizing history is a risky business, especially if that history is as popular as World War II aviation. “Red Tails” dramatizes the experiences of a small cohort of pilots of the 332d Fighter Group from 1944 to 1945.
“Red Tails” begins with a sortie. Captain Marty ‘Easy’ Julian ( Nate Parker ) commands Joe ‘Lightning’ Little (David Oyelowo ) and two other pilots on a search and destroy mission, looking for ground targets. This opening mercifully skips the long training montages common in military movies, and instead introduces the two central characters by contrasting Easy’s cautious, by-the-book leadership to Lightning’s dare devil nature.
The pilots wish to test their skills against German fighters, but are relegated to back-line strafing runs because of their race. The entire 332d is threatened with inactivation because of a lack of success, meaning their commander, Colonel A.J. Bullard is at the Pentagon, fighting to get the Fighter Group assigned to missions that will prove their effectiveness.
Eventually an opportunity to prove themselves arrives when the 332d are assigned to provide cover for a landing. They prove to be a valuable despite the prejudice and get themselves assigned better planes and a new assignment: bomber escort. Finally given a chance to prove they are the equal of any fighter pilots, they take on the Luftwaffe and earn the respect of bomber crews in the process.
Condensing the experiences of the historical 332d pilots and ground crews into a two hour flick made for an action packed, if a bit scattered, movie. I was glad to have skipped an extended training segment. There is an adequate amount of character development without belaboring the point. Some of the characters are stereotypical extremes. The scar faced German pilot “pretty boy” that fills the place as skilled boogeyman could be in any WWII movie, with the same lines and same motivations.
It is easy to point out that some of the dialogue sounds too modern, and the particulars of air combat and perhaps physics are glossed over, but I do not think those facts detracted significantly from the story. There is a little time devoted to a romance between Lightning and an Italian woman (Daniela Ruah), that could be considered unnecessary, but the scenes serve to bring the hot-shot pilot closer to the ground and effectively conveys his growing maturity. In all I enjoyed the pace and balance of action and development.
If anything, the one thing I found awkward were the frequent pauses in action during dogfights. The pilots seemed strangely detached from the action during extended dramatic pauses. Given the speed of the action, these uninterrupted pauses only served to remind me I was watching a movie.
Overall, “Red Tails” stays firmly on the drama side and not so much on the history side of the story. Any connection with history is tenuous. There were some action sequences that seem very cinematic, but terribly implausible. As a war movie, there is much to be enjoyed, the characters are distinctive, if almost caricatures, and nearly all are likeable and interesting. Just don’t expect much of a history lesson, so if you are a history buff, you might be disappointed.