Affecting and emotionally honest, 'Above and Beyond' succeeds as a real life David and Goliath story.
Above and Beyond
Producer Nancy Spielberg, the youngest sister of Steven Spielberg, describes the 1948 Arab-Israeli War as a fight between David and Goliath—many people, including the U.S. government, didn’t believe the freshly created state of Israel stood much of a chance for survival. They had a makeshift army and no air force to protect against invaders from an Arab world that still wanted claim to the land. A group of mostly American WWII vets, with planes made from scraps, would launch the pivotal Squadron 101 and steer the outcome of history by air.
The filmmakers had a bit of a David and Goliath situation on their hands as well: how do you tell these personal tales—half a dozen of the pilots shared their stories, along with other family members and historians—while also including enough of the history of a war many viewers only know by name, if that. And, unfortunately, there’s also a bit of a ticking clock. If you do the math, being up in the air in 1948 means these men are getting up there in age. Indeed, many are over 90.
But you wouldn’t know it by these interviews. The film follows a roughly chronological story starting with each man’s personal reasons for getting involved. Right out of the gate, these vets are human: a lust for adventure, a need to be doing something worthwhile. They’re not necessarily the heroic answers you’d expect to get. And there’s a reason why. A lot of the history we’d often like to forget—that anti-Semitism wasn’t restricted to Germany—seeps in through the personal tales of these men’s younger lives: histories full of being bullied in school and not being able to find a job. “I didn’t like being a Jew. I don’t think you could get a job in the fire department or police department of New York being a Jew,” George Lichter remembers. Lichter would go on to train the men that flew the British Spitfires that ensured the end of the war.
The writing and editing here is just lovely—if anything Above and Beyond is one incredible feat of an oral history. Sixty-six years have passed and these men pick up each other’s stories well. It’s like sitting around a dinner table—well, really, director Roberta Grossman has the men seated in airplane hangars, but everyone feels at home just the same. These men remember exact aerial movements, the smell of entering the country, the names of bars—and the interweaving narratives bring everything to a collective life. When history is needed, a handful of scholars chime in with the timeline of events.
If I have any criticism, it’s that somewhere halfway through the film the stakes feel a bit lost—and by that I mean the narrative arc of the war gets a little muddied. Sure, this is really the story of the men who risked their lives, and sure, we always knew who was going to be the winner (clearly, Israel still exists today), but the first half of the film alternates between history and personal stories in such a tight way that viewers can feel invested in both. The script built some beautiful tension: parents of the pilots not wanting them to leave (they just got their kids back home safely a few years earlier); makeshift airplanes mickey-moused from leftover parts kill one man before the team even reaches Israel; and, once there, the successful first mission stops the Egyptian army cold in their tracks—a great feat but one that left me wondering when the Arabs would find out they’re only up against a dozen men, not thousands. We never get the answer to that, and we never really get any true climax. The tension instead bleeds into an image cluster of loosely related personal stories. The war narrative isn’t dropped completely, but it’s less effective when it’s not showing how micro-actions led to historical results (like when Lou Lenart and his three men literally got an Egyptian army of thousands to turn around).
But as fascinating as the historical element is, losing the war narrative might have been worth it to truly get at the personal transformations these men went through. Who the NYPD did and did not hire is the last thing from Lichter’s mind by the end. “We were really fighting and winning by this point,” he says. “As a Jew, I was now proud of being Jewish.” But the most poignant interview comes from a Jewish pilot named Dani Shapiro, an intriguing addition to the interviewees as he shows so much vulnerability—admitting to being terrified before his first flight and nearly being brought to tears when he remembers getting his wings. “This was my wish. Long time since I was a kid. Now I became a pilot in the Israeli Air Force. In my Air Force. My country.”
These men are eloquent and humble, and it’s something of a miracle that these stories got documented when they did (two pilots have unfortunately passed away since filming concluded). But they’re not just beautiful stories—it’s a visually beautiful film. The cinematography does a lot to bring these stories to life. By combining aerial footage and CGI (and it’s pretty difficult to distinguish between the two) with archival footage and old films, these stories are told visually—all with a sort of out-of-focus aesthetic that pays tribute to the passage of time. It’s easy to forget these men aren’t still 24, because in cinematographer Harris Done’s capable hands, we live in the moment.
Lorne Balfe’s music is lovely as well. Mini emotional climaxes, like the arrival of a fresh rotation of foreign volunteers, are accented with modest strings. The compositions never get carried away but pull and tug at the heart in all the right places. Affecting and emotionally honest, Above and Beyond succeeds as a real life David and Goliath story that, thanks to producer Nancy Spielberg, will not be lost to the passing of time.