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“Masters of the Air” reviewed

When Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg created “Band of Brothers” in 2001, in the wake of their partnership on the 1998 film “Saving Private Ryan,” they were the most prominent celebrators of what had become known as the Greatest Generation. Twenty-three years later, with the release of “Masters of the Air,” they’ve become their own greatest generation: upholders of an old-fashioned style of television making, fighting their chosen war over and over again.

Created by John Shiban and John Orloff based on Donald L. Miller’s book of the same title, “Masters of the Air” — which wrapped up its nine-episode run on Apple TV+ this week — was Hanks and Spielberg’s third mini-series saluting American troops in World War II. (Gary Goetzman joined them as executive producer for “The Pacific” in 2010 and for “Masters.”) The latest band of brothers chosen for dramatization and valorization was the 100th Bomb Group, the “bloody Hundredth,” based in England and decimated during its daytime runs over Europe from 1943 to 1945.

The first — and for many viewers, perhaps, sufficient — observation to be made about “Masters” is that the money, more than ever, was right up there on the screen. These producers are Eisenhower-class when it comes to marshaling staff and materiel, as evidenced by the solid five minutes of closing credits, and both the quotidian recreation of an air base in the green English countryside and the special-effects extravaganzas of airborne battle were visually captivating.

Some of the images of mayhem in the skies as the American B-17s and their crews are torn apart by German flak and fighters were the kind that will stick with you even if you would rather they didn’t, like the rain of wings and engines slowly falling after two bombers collide or like the airman sliding through the sky and being halved by a plane’s wing.

But being absorbingly pictorial (the distinguished roster of directors included Cary Joji Fukunaga, Dee Rees, Tim Van Patten and the team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck) only contributed to the sense that the show existed in amber — more of a well-preserved fossil than a compelling drama. You could argue that this was the inevitable result of trying to celebrate 1940s-style patriotism one time too many. But the issues with “Masters” are artistic rather than cultural or political or factual.

In condensing Miller’s broad-ranging history, while also converting it into a drama extending over nearly eight hours, Orloff and Shiban ended up with an ungainly, disjointed story that never gave itself the time or the space to grow. “Masters” felt like a catalog of war movie genres — the home-front melodrama, the aerial-combat blockbuster, the P.O.W. escape adventure, the behind-enemy-lines spy thriller, the racial-harmony drama — strung together in fealty to actual events but with disregard for dramatic development.

To be fair, the satisfaction offered by “Band of Brothers” and, to a lesser extent, “The Pacific” had to do in part with a focus on groups of men enduring a particular gantlet of action together. The history behind “Masters,” more diffuse geographically and temporally, was certainly more difficult to adapt. But Orloff and Shiban make choices that are in some cases puzzling, in others explicable but dramatically wrongheaded.

A female British soldier — vividly played by Bel Powley — is revealed to be a spy, last seen walking down a street in occupied Paris, and then completely disappears from the show, fate unknown. The all-Black Tuskegee Airmen appear out of nowhere in the next to last episode, as if the reels had gotten mixed up; several of them end up in a prison camp with the show’s white main characters, and one is centrally involved in planning an escape, before they, too, are dropped from the action. A downed pilot rescued by the Russians happens upon an abandoned concentration camp littered with corpses, in a brief scene with a dreary sense of obligation.

The primary narrative, centered on the pilots Buck Cleven (Austin Butler) and Bucky Egan (Callum Turner), also takes a tortuous path. It’s easy to see why you would want to build the story around the best friends Cleven and Egan, with their harmonious nicknames and sterling records of service. But the facts dictate that partway through the series, both ditch their planes and are taken prisoner, radically changing the feel and look of the show in a way that attenuates the drama and diminishes the emotional investment the viewer has been building.

Those events could have been shaped artfully, but “Masters” doesn’t manage it. Cleven’s initial disappearance occurs off screen and without explanation, setting up a surprise prison-camp reunion with Egan several episodes later; it may match real events, but onscreen it feels manipulative and obvious. Neither that meeting nor their second reunion back at the air base has the emotional force it should have; the moments feel like boxes being checked.

Contributing to the general sense of disorganization, the show doesn’t do a good job of differentiating and particularizing the members of its large cast, as airmen die by the hundreds and replacements are brought in. Especially in the aerial scenes, behind oxygen masks and goggles, the crew members are hard to sort out, adding a layer of confusion that makes it harder to be invested in their fates.

The unfortunate thing about “Masters” is that it isn’t doing what it should for some of the actors in the cast, the way “Band of Brothers” showcased Damian Lewis and Ron Livingston. Butler and especially Turner are fine performers, and they’re wonderful to watch in the early episodes, as the 100th arrives in England, prepares for battle and embarks on its disastrous early missions.

Butler’s reserved charisma and Turner’s witty, sparkling-yet-barbed energy play off each other in an absorbing and moving way, and you want to see where the toll of the nightmarish bombing runs takes them. (Nate Mann is also excellent in the more one-dimensional role of the dedicated replacement pilot Robert Rosenthal, who picks up the narrative slack after Cleven and Egan go down.)

Once they’re in the German camps, though, playing out familiar contraband-radio and clandestine-plotting scenarios, the life goes out of their performances, and out of the series as a whole. Butler and Turner deserved better, but Egan and Cleven, who died in 1961 and 2006, respectively, get their due in the scene many viewers probably care about most: the biographical denouement showing their real faces and detailing their postwar lives. Even with Hanks and Spielberg involved, when you put history right next to fiction, history tends to win.