Above and Beyond
by Hope Madden
Roberta Grossman’s documentary Above and Beyond is full of surprises, but perhaps the most shocking thing of all is that it took almost 70 years for a filmmaker to decide to tell this story.
In 1948, a number of American pilots fresh from their WWII duties were courted for a new war effort. They were asked to fight in Israel’s war for independence, becoming the burgeoning nations first ever air force.
Grossman’s tale brims with excitement, derring-do, intrigue and impossible odds – not to mention all the hoo-rah you can squeeze into 90 minutes. Her film benefits from a truly unbelievable story that Grossman wisely mines for more than just sky high heroics.
The American pilots were all Jews who’d fought in WWII only to return home to the same anti-Semitism they’d faced as kids. While they saw the effort to aid the struggling new nation as their chance to subvert yet another Holocaust, for most of these men the fight became one of a personal and cultural relevance they could not have imagined.
Archival footage, reenactments and interviews with surviving pilots and their families are rarely balanced so well or to such entertaining effect. Where so many historical documentaries sink under reverential solemnity or textbook-like staleness, Grossman’s whips past with a combination of surprised laughter and amazed silence.
It’s impossible not to be charmed by these sweet old men and their war stories, but my favorite part was listening to comic genius Paul Reubens (Pee-wee Herman) recount the stories of his father’s participation in the effort. Nutty!
While there are dry spots and flat moments, Above and Beyond boasts a giddy excitement about the whole effort, which is held aloft by the fascinating historical material and anchored with the moving spiritual realizations the battle brought to the pilots.
The film’s most painful flaw is Grossman’s myopic view of the struggle. Above and Beyond aches for some perspective concerning the Palestinian refugees and the lasting struggle facing the region since Israel’s established statehood. It’s an unfortunate oversight because without it the otherwise fascinating, informative and entertaining film feels incomplete.