In many ways, Red Tails could be considered the World War II movie that never got made. A throwback to war films of the 1950s, it centers on an elite squadron of African-American pilots, the Tuskegee Airmen, and their opportunity to fight. Making racism a mere backdrop with a focus on the men and their experiences, the film is less interested in laying on white guilt than in making sure the story is told, since it never would have been in a past era. In doing this, however, producer George Lucas and director Anthony Hemingway concurrently create a somewhat bland and archaic piece of cinema that, despite its distinguished retro aesthetics, doesn’t totally work.
The film, written by John Ridley and Aaron McGruder, takes a holistic approach to mimicking films of the old-fashioned war genre. With melodramatic acting, slow pacing and a matinée-like quality, Red Tails establishes itself as intentionally outdated. More specifically, the actors don’t just recreate the Tuskegee Airmen; they recreate the actors who would have played them over half a century ago. This aesthetic choice differentiates the film from being yet another modern period piece, which doesn’t bode well for it come awards season but speaks volumes in terms of innovation.
That said, the technique proves a two-edged sword. Visually, it flourishes. The washed-out color palate of Hemingway and cinematographer John B. Aronson gives the film a vintage look, which gets further stylized by the sappy score of Terence Blanchard and the grandiose scenery of Central Europe. Hemingway also brings this style to the air in several epic dogfights between the Americans and Nazis. Shot with a true sense of scope, these visually striking action sequences invoke specific moments of both John Wayne’s Flying Leathernecks and Lucas’ Star Wars series, giving Red Tails a notable lift.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the acting and dialogue, Hemingway’s retro stylization doesn’t translate equally. While still visibly purposeful, these elements actually disconnect us from the characters and keep us from sympathizing with them. As the noble Col. A.J. Bullard, Terrence Howard’s ongoing inspirational speeches don’t impress or move so much as they annoy. His overacting and cheesy lines prove too much for the modern viewer. The same can be said for almost every other character. Whether it’s David Oyelowo’s over-the-top Joe “Lightning” Little, Cuba Gooding Jr.’s inexpressive Maj. Stance or Bryan Cranston’s country bigot Maj. Mortamus—they all feel like caricatures of people we can’t wrap our minds around, and the words they speak prove too trite to be heard, even when the viewer knows they’re supposed to be that way.
These realities and consequential missteps also play a role in the pacing of the story. In the spirit of films from past times, the narrative moves at its own pace, which feels unbearably slow. If filled with more thematic depth and developed characters, such a sluggish pace could work. Without the necessary components, though, it results in a boredom that often trumps the amiable action that makes Red Tails so watchable.
For this, Red Tails in many ways parallels Michel Hazanavicius’ overrated yet celebrated silent hit, The Artist, in spite of being less of a crowd pleaser. Within Lucas’ latest lives a fun and clever idea to recreate a thing of the past and pay homage to a way of cinema that no longer exists. But upon execution, it instead reminds us why that particular approach disappeared in the first place.
Director: Anthony Hemingway
Writer: John Ridley (story & screenplay) & Aaron McGruder (screenplay)
Starring: Terrence Howard, Bryan Cranston, Cuba Gooding Jr., David Oyelowo
Release Date: Jan. 20, 2012