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Movie title: Red Tails (2012)
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First, let me get out of the way, the unfortunate need to explain the “see it because it’s good for you” thoughts I’m sure many people will get when hearing about “Red Tails” and its story. Is the film sentimental? Yes. Does it tell rather than show the tragic racial separation that existed in 1944? Yes. Is it optimistic and corny? Yes, again. So stop right here if you don’t want any of this in a movie.
“Red Tails” is definitely old-fashioned Americana, but with the ironic twist that it is the people who were segregated at that time, who get the “1940s-styled Hollywood” treatment. Black soldiers who fought in WWII could go to a theater at that time and see John Wayne and other white actors tell the white WWII stories, but could not see their own sacrifices represented with that same pro-American bias. This is in some ways the 1940s film that they never got from Hollywood. (Ironically, they still haven’t gotten it as Lucas, not Hollywood, bankrolled “Red Tails” independently).
Today’s cynical audiences will not like this. Characters are basically who they seem they are. The same criticism was brought up against “Saving Private Ryan” when that came out, however. Like in “Ryan” we get the stereotypical group of different personalities among the soldiers. There is a character in this named ‘Joker’ as there seems to be in every war movie. There’s also a guy called “Junior”, etc. Spielberg uses the sentimental trick of showing the old Ryan at the cemetery adjoined by the next shot of the young Hanks’ character to play up the sadness you will feel for him in the end. (Let me add, “Ryan” is a certainly a better film than “Red Tails” mainly due to direction).
As for the film, its weaknesses are some unimaginative editing/directing that results in some odd-feeling dissolves between scenes. I noticed this early in the film and it has a bit of a “tv movie” feel to it in that sense. Better planning by the director would have anticipated the camera’s move and the direction of the forms within the image from one scene into the next. So, a more up-scale, Hollywood flashy directing is missing, but if you overcome that early on and accept it, the film is entirely consistent thereafter. The music score is very good, but a little over done in a few parts. There are a few private scenes early in the film where two characters talk in isolation that could have done without the heavy music.
Strengths include the fantastic direction and editing of the aerial sequences. You can really get a good sense of how their missions were and the close calls, quick moves and even the straightforward ordinary flying the pilots must have experienced. The actors are good and uniformly old-fashioned. But after all, we are talking about an America of 68 years ago. The lingo may seem corny, but I have never met a person who lived in that era who didn’t sound corny to me. The actors definitely seem like they believe in something and that they are having fun playing these pilots. The pilots in real life were supposedly a very confident and cocky bunch. The care they have for one another is an asset. As you get to know them you get to care about them and root for them in battle and it gives more feeling to the entertaining battle sequences.
There are some excellent technical decisions such as not to subtitle the character of Sofia. This definitely lets the audience identify with Lightning in how he must overcome the communication barrier between the two. Both she and David Oyelowo as Lightning do an excellent job of expressing their feelings with their faces and bodies as they slowly fall in love. The film shows the narrow-minded thinking you must embrace to be in war. Germans, who are not really seen much, are obvious enemies saying only lines like “Show no Mercy!” In battle, though, do you really have time to be a conflicted person when you are about to fight to the death? And do people really need a conflicted Nazi in a Tuskegee airman story?
The heroes in this movie are just that – Heroes and not anti-heroes. This is an important distinction because we are not a society that looks at things like that anymore. Every hero must have his or her dark side. “Red Tails” shows character flaws, such as Easy’s drinking and Lightning’s show-boating, but it doesn’t hearken on them or analyze them at all. It seems every single film today gives us “Look at me – I’m the anti-hero because I’m too scared to believe in anything, but I really do care – I’m just cynical” characters. I think we want people we can believe in. It’s refreshing to see a good person be a good person for a change. And I don’t have to be spoon fed unrealistic, over-hyper plot twists every five minutes to be impressed. This movie stands out from the crowd for those facts alone. Life isn’t always a series of dark twists; sometimes it’s exactly as it appears.
The Tuskegee airmen were heroes, plain and simple. Maybe, besides the color of their skin, the reason few have really heard of them till now is because they were simply doing their jobs and doing it very well. And the job they did in the air in WWII was very exciting. Final analysis – Does the film make you feel good and proud of these men? Yes. It’s as simple as that.
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