Thursday, January 26, 2012

Red Tails

Alternate Title:  Turn Tail and Run

One sentence synopsis:  The first Black fighter pilots fight bigotry and the Nazis during World War II.

Things Havoc liked:  Um...

Er... well...

Okay, so, The Tuskegee Airmen: Back in the closing days of World War Two, when the US army was still segregated, a group of black pilots fought their way through a racist, bigoted system to be allowed to fly fighter planes for their country in the greatest war in history. These men formed the 332nd Fighter Group, four squadrons of black fighter pilots who were eventually assigned to escort heavy bombers back and forth from their runs on Germany. Despite opposition from the finest German fighters and pilots that remained in the Luftwaffe, these men performed brilliantly, losing very few bombers (by some accounts none at all) and shooting down the first Me-262 jet fighters of the war. In performing well above and beyond the call, the Tuskegee airmen contributed to the collapse of the color barriers in the US army and air force, and justly earned a lustrous place in military history. I applaud the notion of making a film about this subject.

The actors in this film vary in quality, but I will admit, the best job is done by the pilots themselves (which is only fair, I suppose). The movie focuses upon a small group of pilots, particularly two with callsigns 'Lightning' and 'Easy' (David Oyelowo and Nate Parker respectively). These two, and the other pilots that surround them, played variously by R&B and hip hop artists, actually manage a decent amount of what I would call real camaraderie in this movie. Scenes of them sitting about playing cards, discussing missions, lying and bragging to one another, actually strike home reasonably well, and David Oyelowo in particular does a pretty decent job with the material he's given. One does get the impression that this could actually be a group of real pilots in a real movie.

Things Havoc disliked:  I could try to get glib here, try to coyly hide what I actually think, but my duty as a reviewer is to warn people when something like this comes about. So let me get right to the point. This movie is an unqualified piece of shit.

I have never in my life seen a movie torpedo itself so quickly out of the gate. The very first line in the movie is a line so transcendentally awful both in writing and delivery that I turned to my viewing companions and whispered "uh oh". Not even Last Airbender managed to make me lose faith that quickly, and when you're causing me to compare your film negatively with the worst movie ever made, you are in trouble.

I'm no stranger to bad writing in movies, but this screenplay is the worst I have seen in a long damn while. Every single line is an abysmal, cringe-worthy, disaster, so bad that I suspect that George Lucas recycled all of the lines that he thought were too bad to fit into the Star Wars prequels into this film. Characters do not stop at stating the obvious, but narrate their own actions to other people in the same room. Officers give lectures about duty, pride, and honor in such an unfathomably schmaltzy, wooden manner that they look and sound embarrassed to be there. Pilots speak to one another using language that no pilot, indeed that no human being in the history of time, has ever pronounced in all seriousness to another person. These lines are not helped by the soundtrack, comprised entirely of faux-patriotic orchestral crap, which succeeds in making the movie worse in direct proportion to how much it plays. When one is listening to an actor recite awful dialogue, it does not improve the experience by having bad Sousa marches swell up every time someone mentions the word "mission".

It's hard for me to separate the terrible quality of the writing from the acting, but the acting here is absolutely terrible. Yes, I praised David Oyelowo, but that's because my system requires me to find at least SOMETHING I liked, and he's simply the least bad of the lot. Terrence Howard, an excellent actor whom I loved in everything from Crash to Hustle & Flow to Iron Man, here turns in a performance that looks like it was generated under the influence of powerful drugs, staring vacantly into space as he recites terrible and cliche-ridden lines about the power of self-belief. Cuba Gooding Jr, who won an Academy Award for Jerry McGuire, here manages to effortlessly disguise whatever talents led the academy to give it to him. Chomping on his pipe as though it were some alien life form he did not understand, his role is completely superfluous, in that he does not one important thing for the entire movie, plot or character-wise. Gooding has been in his share of bad movies before, but manages here to trump everything he has ever done in terms of awfulness, and for a man who last 'starred' in 'The Land Before Time XIII: The Wisdom of Friends', this is not a statement I make lightly.

One might think that George Lucas, who produced this monstrosity and funded it himself, might at least know how to create stunning aerial dogfights and thrilling scenes of combat. One would be wrong. Comparing the action in this movie to a video game is to inflict a grave and unwarranted insult to video games. Planes dash about the air performing maneuvers that are not simply impossible but laughably so, even to someone with no experience at aerial combat. Our heroes have infinite ammunition in their guns, which appear to fire explosive howitzer shells that trigger stupendous explosions in everything they so much as approach. One of the pilots manages to detonate a locomotive, derailing and obliterating an entire train, by firing into it with .50 caliber machine guns for two seconds. One does not have to be a military historian to know that such events are ludicrously impossible, and as though that weren't enough, he turns around later in the movie and does the same thing to a destroyer! Worst of all, these sights aren't just thoughtless eye-candy we the viewers are treated to while the movie winks at us. At one point that same pilot is congratulated by his superiors for having destroyed SIXTY-THREE aircraft in one strafing mission, a number so absurd as to invite ridicule from people with no prior experience with anything military. I have seen five year olds describing the imagined gyrations of their magical starfighters who maintained a better sense of reality than this.

And yet the worst thing of all about this movie, unquestionably, is the subject of Race. The Tuskegee Airmen, beyond being amazing fighter pilots, were trailblazers, instrumental in the first wave of the civil rights movement by proving conclusively that blacks could do anything whites could. Race is central to the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, and yet this movie manages, somehow, to both whitewash away the racism that the airmen faced, and also reduce it to ludicrous cliche. We see the obligatory racist southern senators sitting around talking about how the airmen are incompetent because they're black, and hear the virtuous (and awful) speeches that the officers of the unit give in their defense. But the pilots scarcely seem to realize that race is a factor in their lives, discussing it infrequently and in pathetic sound-bytes that do the subject no justice. When one of our heroes walks into a whites-only officers' club, and is chased away by racist white officers, their insults sound less like biting, shocking incidents of racism, and more like barely-literate idiots reading uncomfortable lines from a cue card. Every white pilot or crewman, without exception, is portrayed as a bumbling idiot (possibly because the actors are all incompetent, and possibly because the writing is so awful), so stupid and uncomfortable with their lines that we can't believe for a second that these people actually believe what they're saying. The turnaround, when our heroes finally start to get recognized by the formerly racist whites, feels contrived and unconvincing, partly because the writing is still awful, and partly because the threat of racism previously felt like a joke. There is (of course) no mention of their struggle in a wider context, no hint of the racism that might await them back home, nor of the struggles they undertook to get as far as they did. The post-script doesn't even mention the de-segregation of the US military. Instead we are apparently meant to believe that racism itself was vanquished along with Nazi Germany. The movie even goes so far as to include a long (and completely pointless) romance sub-plot between one of the pilots and an Italian girl, ignoring the fact that while any two people can fall in love, there is no way on earth that a black man would be permitted to date (much less marry) a white Italian girl in Italy in 1944. Race riots and lynch mobs were formed over less.

Final thoughts:  Sixteen years ago, HBO produced a movie about the Tuskegee Airmen called (appropriately enough) The Tuskegee Airmen. The movie starred Lawrence Fishburne, Andre Braugher, and, of all people, Cuba Gooding Jr. It did not have an enormous budget, nor was it a perfect film, but it managed to express quite expertly what the conditions for these pilots were like, and what obstacles they were faced with and overcame, all without artifice, blame-throwing, or recourse to ugly stereotypes. Compared to that film, Red Tails feels like an ugly slap in the face, not just to the Tuskegee Airmen themselves, but to the fine black actors who starred in this abomination, which may well set the cause of black actors in this country back twenty years. Men of talent created this film. Aaron McGruder (of the Boondocks) wrote the screenplay. Terence Blanchard (of Malcolm X and Bamboozled) wrote the score. And yet whether because Lucas turns everything he touches these days into galvanized crap, or because some collective mania overcame everyone involved, the result was one of the most complete trainwrecks I've ever seen.

George Lucas claimed in the press that one of the reasons he financed this film himself was that Hollywood was unwilling to back a movie that did not have a single significant white role. At the time I praised him for having dared to do what the studios would not, and given a chance for great actors to portray a story that deeply deserved a full cinematic treatment. Having now seen the result, I suspect that the reason he couldn't secure financing is because someone saw the rough cut and wisely ran away. I sat through this movie in mounting awe at the depths to which it fell, wondering at every turn if it could possibly get any worse, and discovering that it could and did. This movie was a complete disaster from start to finish, and I can only hope that those involved will recover from the experience of having produced it soon.

Lord knows it will take me a while.

Final Score:  1.5/10

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