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Buy from Amazon

Buy from Amazon.com

HBO presents
The Tuskegee Airmen (1995)

"There's little margin for error, here."
- Lieutenant Glenn (Courtney B. Vance)

Review By: Dale Dobson   
Published: February 27, 2001

Stars: Laurence Fishburne, Cuba Gooding Jr., Courtney B. Vance
Other Stars: Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Andre Braugher, Chris McDonald, John Lithgow
Director: Robert Markowitz

Manufacturer: WAMO
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong war violence
Run Time: 01h:46m:02s
Release Date: January 23, 2001
UPC: 026359128523
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
C+ BD+B+ D

DVD Review

The Tuskegee Airmen recounts the trials and travails of the men who made up the 332nd Fighter Squadron during World War II, the first African-American pilots ever fielded by the U.S. Army Air Corps. The best and the brightest black men were recruited to fly for their country, persevering in the face of significant, organized prejudice ranging from blatant disrespect to "physiological studies" claiming that the Negro was simply incapable of operating expensive, complicated equipment, i.e., combat aircraft. The squadron's ultimate success escorting bombers in Europe was a small but significant step towards racial equality in the United States.

Laurence Fishburne stars as Hannibal 'Iowa' Lee Jr., backed by a strong ensemble cast including Cuba Gooding Jr., Courtney B. Vance, and Malcolm Jamal Warner as his fellow recruits and officers. Chris McDonald once again plies his stock-in-trade as an unlikable, racist flight trainer who gets his comeuppance, and John Lithgow appears as one Senator Conyers, determined to keep the African-American pilots grounded lest they inspire uppity ideas among their brethren. The script tends towards two-dimensional stereotypes, but the talented cast individualizes each character, filling in the broad outlines with nuance and warmth enough to draw the audience in. Robert Markowitz's direction is unobtrusive, with some well-executed aerial biplane footage and an appreciation for the storytelling potential of human eyes and faces.

The physical production is visibly limited by the cable-movie budget—obvious rear-projection cockpit shots, generic explosions and colorized stock footage abound, but they seem somehow appropriate to the timeframe of the story. More troubling is the credits' admission that facts have been altered and historical personages blended and modified for dramatic purposes. While I have no doubt that the production benefits in some ways from the streamlining, the age-old conflict between history and entertainment remains. The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is important and should be aimed at the broadest audience possible, but the simplistic depiction here, of racial barriers handily overcome by Top Gun-style heroics, threatens to undermine understanding of the real people and issues involved. Still, The Tuskegee Airmen is a stirring, touching, eye-opening portrait of men who were brave in every sense of the word, and if the facts are treated loosely, the spirit remains true to its source.

Rating for Style: C+
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Rationo

Image Transfer Review: HBO presents The Tuskegee Airmen in a 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio, with a very solid anamorphic transfer. Unfortunately, it appears that the 1.78:1 image presented here was cropped down from a 1.33:1 full-frame original—there are several shots where heads are cut off or composition is otherwise made awkward by the matting. While the DVD image is otherwise very nice, with solid shadow detail, naturalistic color, and few digital artifacts, a hint of edge enhancement, some source print flecking and the ill-considered cropping of the made-for-cable production lower this grade significantly.

Image Transfer Grade: D+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0English, Frenchyes

Audio Transfer Review: The Tuskegee Airmen DVD features an English Dolby 2.0 Surround soundtrack, a French 2.0 Stereo track, and a Spanish 1.0 monophonic track. The cable-movie production was originally mastered in Dolby Digital Stereo Surround, and the DVD transfer sounds very clean with some nice surround usage and a bit of low-end activity. The French track retains the surround sound effects of the English track, though music is mixed for the front soundstage only without the subtle ambience of the 2.0 Surround track. The Spanish mono track sounds significantly flatter for obvious reasons, though the dialogue is more lip-accurate and evocative of the original performances than the French dub. Since subtitles are available in all three languages, the most attractive solution seems to be the English soundtrack with your choice of subtitles. Frequency and dynamic range are a bit limited, but dialogue is clear, Lee Holdridge's heroic score sounds just fine and the vintage aircraft roar the way they ought to.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 15 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Cast and Crew Filmographies
Packaging: Snapper
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: The Tuskegee Airmen on DVD features few extras, just 15 picture-menu chapter stops, biographies and "highlight" filmographies for 8 cast members and the director, and subtitles in three languages. It's a shame some historical background on the real Tuskegee Airmen was not included here; given the occasional bit of dramatic license taken by the filmmakers, a documentary counterpart to the main attraction is conspicuous by its absence. Unfortunately, an opportunity was missed to flesh out the portrait of these pioneering pilots.

Extras Grade: D


Final Comments

The Tuskegee Airmen tells the story of our country's first African-American pilots during World War II, aided by a strong, committed cast. HBO's DVD features a decent but cropped widescreen transfer, and supplements are scarce; probably not a buyer, but definitely worth a rental.


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