As a new-media and social-media guy, you build audience by getting excited about your subject matter and getting the audience excited, too. But you build credibility when you point out the ugly among the good. I really wish that this post wasn’t going to have to be about credibility. Or about ugly. But it is.
I just got home from seeing Red Tails. I had heard that the film had received less than stellar reviews, but I made it a point to avoid others’ opinions and go see the film for myself.
I’m so disappointed. It was like watching a train wreck in slow motion. Here’s what I saw.
Every character was a mere caricature. Even Cuba Gooding, Jr. was an absolutely, completely, and entirely flat cardboard cutout like the rest of the cast.
The dialogue was unbearably hackneyed. Aircrew saying lines that no aircrew outside of a Hollywood soundstage has ever said or will ever say.
The villain is perhaps the worst caricature of all. You don’t have to squint hard to see the resemblance to Fearless Leader from the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. I’m not kidding. Complete with dueling scar of the same size, shape, and location on his right cheek. I can’t make up stuff like this. The only thing that they left out was the monocle.
I’m not a customs-and-courtesies maven. But I’m guessing that no CAP cadet who saw some of the salutes rendered in the film (or the timing of some of them) would have been able to keep his or her cookies down. Maybe the salute or the appropriate places and times for salutes were different in Italy in World War II. But I don’t think so.
They even got the guitar wrong. The guitar is strummed by thumb with open hand with downstrokes only, but (a) the right hand clearly never makes contact with the strings and (b) the overdubbed guitar is being strummed both up and down with the backs of the fingers on the downstroke and the back of the thumb on the upstroke. Strangely, at least the left hand looked semi-normal. It might even have saved the guitar sequences had the guitar playing actually started and stopped in synch with the overdub.
Not one story line was compelling. Not even the “we’ll stay with the bombers” thread. Every single story line seemed made up on the spot in the scene in which it first appeared and begged the viewer to lay the foundation by some sort of moviegoing time travel that the director and screenwriter couldn’t be bothered with. It’s as though Christopher Paolini wrote the screenplay.
And I haven’t even gotten to the flying sequences. So let’s get to the flying sequences.
The in-cockpit footage was astonishingly bad. None of the pilots moved or reacted in turns or other maneuvers in a way that looked even remotely real. The green-screen horizon merely moved in the background as they sat straight up or head-faked a lean that bore no resemblance to the actual reaction of a pilot under those inertial circumstances. And, to make matters worse, the most dramatic grunting and straining happened at the most inaccurate times possible (such as grunting and shouting on the float over the top of a loop or Immelman, at which time the pilot is generally experiencing near-zero G).
We live in the age of the GoPro Hero camera. Even a knucklehead like me can shoot compelling in-cockpit video and then watch it to see what pilots actually look like under G and in turns, pulls, pushes, slips, and skids. How difficult could it have been to shoot some face-on cockpit video (or just do some of the most elementary browsing on the Internet), pay attention, and come up with some realistic instructions for the actors? Who did the technical consulting on this film? Do I even want to know?
The pièce de résistance of Lucas thumbing his nose at Newton, Bernoulli, and North American Aviation is the final scene in which a four-ship of P-51s comes in low over the presentation on the ramp and then pulls into the vertical. And holds it for an impossibly long time. I presume that, after the fade to black, there was a formation tailslide the precision and coordination of which has never been seen before or since. Or the loss of four P-51s and most of the assembled company on the ramp. I suppose that the formation might have been looping, but it seemed to me that the upline continued in the vertical and that, even if the formation was looping, it had inadequate energy at the pull to actually get it all the way around and not impact terrain.
Even the sound was wrong. Every piece of cockpit dialogue was clear and had the acoustics of being spoken in a quiet space with acoustic baffling. But Jug and Mustang cockpits have the acoustics of – well – Jug and Mustang cockpits. They’re loud as hell. There’s no way that normal speech caught by a mic in a mask that’s laying down on the pilot’s shoulder would be that intelligible over that din. And, more to the point, the absence of even a hint of that din made the whole thing look, sound, and feel sterile and disassociated with anything even approaching an airplane cockpit.
There are a couple of instances in which the P-51s throttle up. And you hear the engine as the throttle moves forward. But that’s it. You don’t ever really hear it at any other time. How could a sound designer for a movie that features P-51D Mustangs so utterly fail to incorporate the sound of a Merlin engine into the film? How?
Lucas had an opportunity to accurately show the snap roll and subsequent near-tumble used to cause an Fw 190 to overshoot, thus allowing the P-51 to stitch the Fw 190 diagonally with guns as it overshot. But I’m reasonably sure that the pull shown was way too slow for the maneuver and that a pull that slow would simply have resulted in a mere loop or Immelman entry instead of the immediate stall and autorotation that is shown onscreen. Any snap roll that I’ve ever heard of requires a much more rapid pull to force the stall quickly and start the autorotation.
The exterior aerial scenes were awful in their own ways. I did like the wide shots of the furball in progress. That was cool. But that’s only because there was too much going on for the bothersome details to show up. I’m sure that at least one of the aircraft has the tail number THX 1138. Me, I’m hoping that some hero CGI animator snuck in an easter egg on the belly of a bomber that reads “Han shot first.”
Has anyone else noticed that every turn seemed flat and skidded? I have it on good authority that most P-51s were equipped with ailerons. But the P-51s in Red Tails skidded around every turn in ways that made it seem that the ailerons were shimmed to half-effectiveness. It might just be my eye and I’ve only seen the film once. But I’m pretty sure that there was a lot of skidding.
The Me 262s in the movie mixed it up with the P-51s in dogfights. In fact, the Luftwaffe attacked bomber streams almost exclusively by using diving and slashing attacks. Me 262s were few and precious to the Luftwaffe and the Luftwaffe didn’t risk them in slow, turning dogfights. The tremendous speed advantage of the Me 262 made it unnecessary for them to go after American fighters. They simply streaked in through the fighter escort cloud and unloaded their four 30mm cannons on the bombers. Why would an Me 262 pursue American fighters if their objective was actually to attack the bomber stream and their speed advantage permitted them to do so with relative impunity? Yet the Red Tails Me 262s are there on the screen chasing down (and then strangely not overshooting ) P-51s.
These are just my impressions a few hours after walking out of the theater. I didn’t take notes. I didn’t expect that I’d need to take notes because I had no idea going in that I’d feel compelled to write this blog entry. You should feel free to send me hate mail or leave comments here on the blog. I’m sure that I’ve screwed up something. But also pretty sure that I’m right about most of this.
I’m glad that people remember and honor the Tuskegee Airmen. I’ve met more than my share and these men deserve a great deal of praise. The 332nd Fighter Group’s deeds stand on their own, far beyond any poor ability of anyone else to style, characterize, or flavor.
Aviation needs its heroes. Aviation needs all the exposure that it can get in every medium possible. We desperately need another Top Gun to inspire both us and the next generation. For all of the above reasons, I wanted very much to find some basis for praising Red Tails.
There is no basis of any kind upon which to praise this movie. It’s awful. I groaned involuntarily and audibly several times. I couldn’t help myself. It was one of the most uncomfortable experiences I’ve ever had in a theater. It’s so bad in so many ways that it’s simply unwatchable. I only stayed because I was with my brother-in-law and my son and I held out some hope that they were having a good time and were not picking up on what I was seeing.
If news broke tomorrow that Lucasfilm had inadvertently released a rough cut and it turned out that what I saw in the theater tonight was one of those rough cuts, I would completely believe that news. Except that the acting was also so awful that not even a re-cut of the film could have made it into anything approximating what I’d expect from Lucasfilm (at least the Lucasfilm of old).
The last insult on top of injury is that Red Tails occupies a space in the rhythm of movie opportunities that might have been occupied by a better film. The last time there was adequate funding, interest, and market for a feature-length drama about the Tuskeegee Airmen was in 1995 when HBO produced Tuskegee Airmen, starring Laurence Fishburne. It has taken these past 16 years to get to the point where there’s enough interest to support another film. Even so, George Lucas invested $58 million of his own money into making the film.
It’ll be at least another decade – maybe two – before the market is ready for another Tuskegee feature film. And this was probably the last opportunity to have a Tuskegee movie on theater screens while actual Tuskegee airmen still live and breathe. Lucas shot this cycle’s only wad on Red Tails.
Before getting up out of my seat in the theater, I tweeted “I cant begin to say how disappointed I am after seeing Red Tails. I’m so very, very sorry.” So now I’ve begun. And I am most deeply sorry that the film ended up being what it is. I was really excited to see it. Perhaps that added to the disappointment.
It is probably impolitic to criticize Red Tails. Most aviation media have been frothing at the mouth for months over the impending release and running all kinds of excited features. I expect hate mail. There was such a swell of enthusiasm in the aviation community about it that I feel like a heretic in actually putting these observations out there. But I’m pretty sure that any pilot who saw the film is thinking what I’m thinking. It’s a painful exercise in credibility to actually say it. But I’m saying it.