Review: ‘Red Tails’ flies high during combat, but can’t win the whole war

Anyone who watched “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” probably has a pretty good idea of what they can expect from the long-rumored George Lucas production of “Red Tails” now that it’s actually opening in theaters.

The story of the Tuskeegee Airmen is a significant one, and worth telling.  HBO took a shot at it a while ago, and Lucas has been trying to get his version made for what feels like decades now.  I admire the intent, because a film like this and a story like this can be inspirational and connect young African-American audiences to a history they may not know about.  If that’s the only thing the film accomplishes, then I’m sure Lucas will count it as a success, and I do hope parents take their kids to see it.

I also hope it is the start of a conversation, and not the entire thing.

“Red Tails” presents a squeaky-clean version of a very difficult moment in history, punctuated with some truly remarkable aerial combat footage, something that really shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows Lucas and his work.  His love of dogfights resonates loud and clear in the “Star Wars” series, and every time this film takes to the air, it works completely.

Unfortunately, much more of the film focuses on the struggles faced by the men of the 99th Fighter Squadron on the ground, and while the film’s message is a strong one, it is muted by the way history has been treated here.  When you can tell that this isn’t the way things worked in history, it’s frustrating, because the true story without any cheats or anachronisms is fascinating enough.  I thought the script, credited to John Ridley and Aaron McGruder, was naive about the way things were, and what bothers me most is that I think it’s intentionally naive.  When you’re dealing with race and prejudice and overcoming the times in which you live, you should go out of your way to show how things really were.  While this entire film hinges on the shifting perception of race among the Americans in WWII, it lets America and the real 99th solve things with a surprising amount of ease.  For this movie to really land its punches, it would need to dirty things up and show what virulent racism looks like as well as subtle and almost impossible-to-detect racism.

The reason I compared this to “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” is because that series demonstrated a desire by George Lucas to dramatize history.  He has spoken many times about how much he hated school when he was a student, and how he wished school had figured out how to engage him.  His educational program, Edutopia, is the sort of thing that proves that it’s important to him to help kids do their best in a process that he disliked, and this movie, like “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles,” is part of the way he wants to reach people who don’t like school, using drama and thrills to sugar-coat a history lesson.  The problem is that the history feels like a big download of exposition much of the time, only occasionally interrupted for an amazing aerial dogfight.

Director Anthony Hemingway has done strong work on the small screen for shoos like “The Wire,” and he’s got a good sense of how to stage those amazing air battles.  I don’t think he manages to make his cast feel like a cohesive unit, though, and that makes it a frustrating experience when writing a review.  I’d bomb this except I think there is real historical value to preserving these stories and telling them again.  We may have an African-American president, and my wife and kids may have had last Monday off from school, but we certainly haven’t beaten racism by any means.  There is a story being told here that is significant, and I agree with Spike Lee, who was pushing this on Twitter today because he knows that if this film fails, Hollywood will blame the largely-black cast, saying once again that audiences won’t go see a film with a largely black cast.

As a drama, “Red Tails” is more problematic than you’d expect from a film that’s been in development longer than some of you have been living.  It is also a film where you can feel producer George Lucas lurking just out of of the edge of frame.  It may have been directed by Hemingway and written by John Ridley and Aron McGruber, but this is very much a George Lucas movie.

Is that a promise or a warning?  Depends on your perspective.

“Red Tails” opens in theaters everywhere today.