The lesser-known actors can be as galvanising as the stars here. Nate Mann, a relative unknown, has charisma that matches Butler’s in a major role as Major Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal, the pilot who flew the most missions, and whose reluctance to take any time off is heroic but not healthy.
Anthony Boyle narrates the series as Major Harry Crosby, a navigator constantly getting airsick, and at first seems to be merely comic relief. As the series goes on, Crosby becomes one of the most layered characters, carrying the weight of its themes about the emotional cost of war. Rafferty Law is charming as a young mechanic, and Branden Cook is a forceful presence as one of the Tuskegee Airmen – from the famed unit of black fliers created because the US Army was segregated – who is talented at mapping routes to escape the enemy.
But the show was shot in 2021, and some actors who are now well-known have small roles, including Barry Keoghan (Saltburn). And a heads-up to Doctor Who fans: although Ncuti Gatwa is featured in the opening credits, he doesn’t turn up until episode eight (of nine), when some of the Tuskegee Airmen arrive to help the Eighth. He has hardly any lines, but in his few words he does nail the American accent.
Reckoning with the moral and emotional cost of war is the show’s most contemporary twist, but that theme doesn’t accumulate any resonance until very late in the series. “All this killing we do, day in, day out,” Crosby says to Rosie, surfacing the kind of thought the men couldn’t risk dwelling on too much. “[It] does something to a guy. Not in a good way.” Rosie says about the enemy, “They got it coming”. That intriguing, reflective strand is one thing the series has not borrowed from old war movies. As bracing as it is in many ways, Masters of the Air could have used more of that freshness and less nostalgia.
Masters of the Air is on Apple TV+ from 26 January
If you liked this story, sign up for The Essential List newsletter – a handpicked selection of features, videos and can’t-miss news delivered to your inbox every Friday.