Just in time for the theatrical bow of the George Lucas produced 'Red Tails,' HBO Films brings the Golden Globe nominated 1995 feature on the same subject to Blu-ray. "Based on the true story of the 332nd Fighter Squadron," this television movie is an education on by the books, paint by numbers filmmaking.
'The Tuskegee Airmen' follows a group of enlisted men who went through the famous fighter plane training at the Tuskegee Institute and Army Air Field. As we follow a group of fictional composites of real people, the first ones to go through the admitted experiment, we're taken on a crash course with Hannibal Lee (Laurence Fishburne), Billy Roberts (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), Walter Peoples (Allen Payne) and company, as they deal with the racism at home and abroad, as they serve a country that doesn't want them. As they battle obstacles, both political and physical, they soon earn the respect of their fellow enlisted men, and the country at large, earning a reputation as the premiere bomber escorts, and the pride of those back home rooting for the men opening the door for racial equality before Jackie Robinson or Martin Luther King, Jr.
The legend, the mystique of the 332nd is the basis for this HBO crafted film, rather than a funny little thing called fact. Sure, for almost 60 years, the idea that the Tuskegee Airmen didn't lose a single bomber that they escorted was a mark of pride not to be questioned, so the inclusion of this "fact" at the end of the film isn't a major put off. Even if the 332nd lost up to 25 bombers, as is rumored today, it's their pride, their place in history that is to be celebrated. This film takes on this task through a number of methods, from the dramatization of flight training and the dangers involved, to the inherent racism met at every level the squadron elevates to. After about the fifth or sixth time race becomes a hurdle to be leapt in this film, it starts to get a little redundant and excessive.
'The Tuskegee Airmen' has a solid structure, though it keeps falling back to the same point, over and over, instead of making it a lesser issue the greater the prestige earned. It opens as a group of men meet (and deal with racism on the train), and moves onward to their introductory days in the camp (in which they have to deal with racism), as they lay stagnant in the boonies while white soldiers are called off to Europe (due to racism), until they finally get their turn in combat...until a Senator (played by John Lithgow, featuring the worst accent he's ever attempted), playing the race card, tries to get them off the battlefield. The Airmen eventually work their way through the ranks, flying an unheard number of missions (due to not getting rest), until the day they save a group of bombers, who can't believe they were saved by black pilots. Racism.
It gets a little old over the course of the film. Characters become redundant (see: Lithgow's doubting Senator to Christopher McDonald's doubting Major), themes get played over and over again. The fact that danger is high and survival rates are low is a fact we're exposed to often. The film practically sets itself up as a death montage, as any pilot given a name is death bait...only, spread out through the film, for dramatic effect. Don't make friends, you'll only lose them...it's as if the entire plot is to be telegraphed on top of the fact that history already wrote the outcome.
I'm not here to badmouth a legendary group of men who fought for their country. They're legends. Heroes, even. So much so that they deserve a better film than this. 'The Tuskegee Airmen' is a suitable film to show to junior high or high school students, to aid in education during Black History Month, or even in the history of World War II or as a precursor to the Civil Rights Movement. It's not so much suitable to sit down with popcorn on a Saturday night, expecting entertainment. The outline for an amazing film is here, but the fabric of this yarn is worn thin from excessive retreading.
The Disc: Vital Stats
'The Tuskegee Airmen' arrives on Blu-ray from HBO as a part of a Black History Month wave, on a Region A locked BD25 disc, housed in a digibook. The book itself is a montage of pictures of Tuskegee Airmen, real and fictional. It's not informative, on the real men or the film and its production. It's also a little flimsy by digibook standards.
Presented in 1080p, 'The Tuskegee Airmen' is passable, but just barely. This is all over the place, and while it has some negative elements that are natural due to the use of vintage footage, the two, three tone picture can be a little annoying over the film's runtime.
The light dirt blips aren't so much the issue as the color saturation. One shot, the picture is pale, soft, light...the next, startlingly sharp and vivid and lifelike. It's back and forth, back and forth. "Foggy" rooms aren't to blame...hell, I don't know what to blame for this particularly odd presentation. Picture depth is also back and forth, with early scenes showing no hint of three dimensionality whatsoever, and that includes Fishburne's heavily cratered visage, while the majority of the shots past the first act show an abundance of life. Textures also take this bumpy road, as do edges. Perhaps the planes got an artificial edge to stand out, for any special effects, but their highlighting is noticeable. This disc has some crush issues, as well.
Newcomers must take note that 'The Tuskegee Airmen' incorporates footage from other films, both newsreel, historical, and even cinematic, to create some of its war footage. These moments are impossible to grade. Colors go bizarre, dirt is everywhere, it's pale and borderline obnoxious. Funnily enough, Wikipedia states that scenes from 'The Memphis Belle' and 'Battle of Britain' are a part of this montage of random footage. They won't (and don't) look this bad on their own on Blu-rays.
The audio for 'The Tuskegee Airmen' comes by way of a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. It's another two-tone experience. While planes move through the room without any lumbering effort, scenes often just don't sound right. I can stomach the often screechy score (which hits rears capably), but what few scenes have microphones have the worst echo effect ever, sounding horribly distorted (and not just due to the natural, you know, distortion of mics). Even worse, an entire scene has an ungodly grating high end squeal to it, one that makes the high end hum on 'Sin City' seem natural. When Lithgow visits the troops in Africa, get ready for one of the most annoying sounds on Blu-ray, at least until Fran Drescher and 'Beautician and the Beast' hit the format.
There are no extras on this disc. No trailer, nothing. Just the info in the digibook...wait, no, there's no info in there, just pictures. Barren.
'The Tuskegee Airmen' is riddled with repetitiveness and dialogue so cliched that almost every single line in the movie would feel tailor-made for a trailer spot. It tells an important story, but it feels like a lecture, it isn't entertaining. The flying scenes are pretty darned neat...until it becomes a mishmash of previous films and historical footage that draws you right out of the experience. This Blu-ray release costs next to nothing due to a super low MSRP, which helps one deal with the solid but flawed presentation, and the digibook packaging may entice some people. This film isn't going to be one to earn tons of new fans, though, so it may be best aimed at existing fans or airplane fanatics.