While Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan helped define the style of a modern day war film it was his HBO mini-series Band of Brothers that truly captured the World War II experience. The multi-part saga dealt with every nook and cranny of the US military's involvement in the war from large scale battles to intimate character details. The new movie Red Tails developed and produced by Spielberg's Indiana Jones collaborator and Star Wars mastermind George Lucas attempts to cover the same ground for the sprawling tale of the Tuskegee Airmen—albeit in a two hour compressed form. The result is a messy handling of a powerful story of heroism. The good intentions make it on to the screen...but the drama never gets off the runway.
Red Tails assembles a talented cast of young actors to portray the brave men of the 332nd Fighter Group a faction of the Tuskegee Airmen. The ensemble is reduced to a jumble of simplistic one-note characterizations: Easy (Nate Parker) the do-gooder with a dark past; Lightning (David Oyelowo) the suave rebel who never listens to orders; Junior (Tristan Wilds) the fresh-faced newbie ready for a good fight; and the rest a nameless group of underwritten yes men all with just enough backstory to make you interested but never satisfied. Thankfully with the little material they have to work with the gentlemen excel. Rapper-turned-actor Ne-Yo is a standout as the quick-witted Smokey overshadowing vets Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. (who spends most of the movie chomping on a corn cob pipe and grinning).
With the plethora of characters comes too many plot threads and Red Tails stuffs its runtime with everything from epic flyboy dog fights romantic interludes (Lightning finds himself infatuated with a local Italian woman) office politics alcoholism and even a POW camp escape. If there was a true lead character the movie may have succeeded in stringing the events together in a coherent narrative but instead Red Tails is choppy and uneven. The aerial battles for all their CG special effects nastiness are incredibly exhilarating but when the movie's not tackling the intensity of a battle (which it does often) it comes to a near halt. That mostly comes down to history standing in the way—the crux of the story focuses on how segregation caused the military's higher ups to avoid utilizing the Red Tails in true battle. Meaning there's a lot of talk on how the team should be fighting as opposed to actually doing it.Director Anthony Hemingway tries to do this important historical milestone justice but the execution flies too low even under made-for-TV movie standards. Red Tails is a dull history lesson occasionally spruced up with Lucas' eye for action. The charisma of the the main set of actors goes a long way in keeping the film tolerable but they can't fill the gaping hole where the emotional hook belongs. This is a movie about heroes yet not once are the filmmakers able to pull off a moment that feels remotely brave. Which is unfortunate—as it's a story of the utmost importance.
Based on a novel by Laura Kasischke it focuses on two 17-year-old high school girls--Diana (Evan Rachel Wood) and Maureen (Eva Amurri)--who are completely opposite in personalities but still the best of friends. In fact "one is the virgin one is the whore " according to Diana. She does everything her demure and religious BFF with their bond going spiritually deep. One fateful day at high school changes their lives however when a student gunman goes on a shooting spree in the school. The gunman corners the two girls in the bathroom and tells them he must kill one. Jump to 15 years later the adult Diana (Uma Thurman) has a great home life: smart cute kid successful husband nice house. But it's not as it seems. It is assumed that Maureen was the one who was killed prompted by her telling the gunman she wants to be the one shot. But a last-minute plot twist puts the movie's title in a different light: The Life Before Her Eyes is more than just Diana's life. This film incorporates some elegant performances from Wood and Amurri--two veterans of the teen genre who portray their characters’ friendship with much authenticity. Amurri(Susan Sarandon's real-life daughter) especially downplays her innocence with smart nuances while Wood is coming into her own as a strong edgy actress--just not enough to save this film. Thurman tempts Oscar-type bait as the emotionally distraught Diana constantly reliving the horror of the killing spree through flashbacks. The actress’ mood is maudlin and suitably translucent for mournfulness. But Thurman's screen presence is just too large and glamorous to be believable in the melancholy role. She looks to be assuming the trance-like “look of sadness ” as though she's playing a role. Her body language is too confident to be carrying around a lifetime of hurt. Director Vadim Perelman (House of Sand and Fog) is a poor man's Julian Schnabel--a visual and ephemeral craftsman who works with colors. Blurry imbued tones of greens and yellow bring the story to life pairing with spring-time settings with shadows and light. The Life Before Her Eyes aims for a dreamlike complexity and how conscience ties to memory. The film is also about how changing a person's destiny can completely rewrite an entire history. A palette of moody camerawork from director of photography Pawel Edelman (The Pianist) creates an eternal lushness which elevates the drama. The Columbine-style shooting sequences feels outdated however. It's a contrived museum treatment such public tragedies. It’s an adventurous independent film that doesn't quite come together as intended.