A gung-ho celebration of the overnight creation of the Israeli Air Force by a handful of American G.I.’s, “Above and Beyond” boasts a helluva story, a cast of still-feisty nonagenarian flyboys, and state-of-the-art combat “reconstructions” by Industrial Light and Magic (working gratis). Director Roberta Grossman and producer Nancy Spielberg’s documentary soars when buoyed by the subjective recollections of its expertly interviewed pilots. When venturing into historical “objectivity,” however, the film veers toward oversimplified selectivity, too intent on its feel-good, back-patting agenda. Nevertheless, recasting Israel’s survival as a victory for American chutzpah may widen the film’s appeal beyond target auds.
The daredevil pilots’ tale of how they jerrybuilt a fledgling fighting force for Israel is the stuff of high adventure; wild improbabilities and slapdash solutions abound as they overcome all manner of official obstacles. Americans were forbidden to join in the Israeli struggle and faced loss of citizenship and imprisonment. Planes and the armaments they carried had to be bought clandestinely and smuggled out of the country in the raggedy guise of a fictional Panamanian airline. Pilots were recruited by covertly contacting WWII airmen with Jewish-sounding names in secret rendezvous (“Meet a guy with a flower in his lapel on 57th Street”).
Once airborne, the planes had to hopscotch halfway around the world, from Panama to Brazil, Morocco, Rome and finally Czechoslovakia for training. There, in a wildly ironic twist, American pilots wound up outfitted in Nazi uniforms flying cobbled-together Messerschmitts. But to hear the old boys tell it, this global jaunt consisted of one long series of wild parties as they cruised in search of wine, women and trouble. Amazingly, in relating their unheralded exploits, these elderly buzzboys regain their devil-may-care panache, adding greatly to the pic’s storytelling brio, while Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic (anything but seat-of-the-pants) fills simulated faded Technicolor skies with flying B-16 bombers, RAF Spitfires and a whole mess of Messerschmitts.
Grossman’s tunnel vision plunges viewers into the reconstructed events of a single year, 1948, enlivened by the men who participated in these momentous, map-altering missions. But when the focus widens to include an overview beyond the airmen’s experience, it becomes clear that history — and newsreels — are written by the winners. By including an extended, fairly one-sided account of the founding of Israel, complete with an interview with Shimon Peres, and placing it within the heroic yarn-spinning of American WWII vets, the filmmakers conjure the illusion of a national destiny linked to the United States, unchanged in its trajectory to the present.
Technically, “Above and Beyond” is slickly put together by cutter Chris Callister, the pilots seamlessly introduced and reintroduced at key junctures; the archival photographs and historical footage are skillfully matched to fake contemporaneous aerial dogfights and plane’s-eye-views of advancing Egyptian, Iraqi and Jordanian forces.
Spielberg has said that she plans to make a narrative feature out of this material, and maybe partial fictionalization would allow for subtler, more nuanced insertion of a historical overview, possibly conveyed via background radio broadcasts or mulled over by characters in plot-given contexts. But as it stands, “Above and Beyond” reps an uneasy combo of two very different kinds of documentary, one of them personalizing the past and the other “objectifying” political advocacy.