Reel Life: Flick Pix
ILM effects illustrate salty old flyboys’ tales of derring-do in founding the Israeli Air Force
By Nora Lee Mandel
ABOVE AND BEYOND
Directed by Roberta Grossman
Produced by Nancy Spielberg
Written by Sophie Sartain
Released by International Film Circuit
USA. 87 min. Not Rated
Previewed at 2014 DOC NYC Festival
Above and Beyond nimbly combines salty old dog storytellers regaling the swashbuckling derring-do of their youth with illustrations by Industrial Light and Magic’s whiz bang special effects for a thrilling documentary ride. A trove of archival footage, personal photographs, letters, and scholarly interviews deftly add historical context for informative and personal look at the scrappy band of brothers who founded the Israeli air force on the fly, more than 60 years before the region is again attracting idealists from afar to fight in new wars.
When producer Nancy Spielberg, Steven Spielberg’s youngest sister in his childhood movie crew, learned that American engineer Al Schwimmer died in 2011 at age 94, she raced against time to interview the last of the nonagenarian World War II veteran pilots he had started stealthily recruiting in 1945, dodging U.S. and European embargoes to get planes and military equipment to Israel just in time for its 1948 War of Independence.
Inside an old airplane hangar, seven feisty, and very distinctive, veterans individually set their biographical stage for why they were open to being approached. Most admit to having had little sense of Jewish identity, except in reaction to anti-Semitism, whether growing up around America (one was South African). Leon Frankel chortles “When they hit me, I’d hit back”, and another recalls a mocking recruiter when he signed up for the Marines after Pearl Harbor. All learned about the Holocaust when they served as pilots in the Army Air Force, Navy or National Guard, and saw the newsreels of the ships full of refugees, like in Exodus, challenging the British blockade into Palestine. (I couldn’t help but wonder if my mother’s cousin was in that footage of displaced persons on board.) Back home, all were restless after the excitement of dogfights in the sky during war. While one of the pilots wasn’t Jewish, one widow (mother of actor Paul Reubens, who is interviewed with her, oddly, in a synagogue) notes that her husband Milton Rubenfeld was frustrated that he was working as a stunt pilot because airlines weren’t hiring Jews.
Recruitment for Machal (the Hebrew acronym for “volunteers from outside the land”, which still operates, now chaired by Smoky Simon, the South African pilot) was all “hush hush”, as any American participant risked loss of U.S. citizenship and indictment for violating the U.S. Neutrality Acts. (Schwimmer was convicted.) The spy-like operation hid in plain sight above the Copacabana Nightclub. (The men revel in the memory of gawking at the showgirls.) All say their parents were not supportive; one remember his father’s plea: “You don’t have to kill yourself to be a good Jew.”
Animated maps show the circuitous routes taken to get surplus planes and military hardware out of the country. (Our family lore from a steel shipping warehouse business on the New York docks has been handed down of how lathes for armaments were loaded up around customs marked as “farm tools” to Israel.) They chortle at the creation of a fictional air line in Panama buying the planes and flying them from Brazil to Casablanca to Rome to a remote airfield in Czechoslovakia, next to a re-configured Nazi arms factory where they enjoyed painting over the swastikas on reconfigured Messerschmitts, like the kind they had been shooting down during the war. While one says he felt like Charles Lindbergh, others grin with ribald memories of being fancy-free in each port of call to successfully impress the local women with their swagger.
In archival footage from May 1948, the British withdraw from Palestine and Israel celebrates independence. (The scholars acknowledge the fleeing and some expulsions of the indigenous Palestinian communities, whose leadership had sided with the friend of their enemy the British.) President David Ben-Gurion also declared an air force – but with no military aircraft. One pilot laughs at their assignment: “How the hell to get the planes to Israel?”
The mouth-dropping reconstruction effects start in (magically multiplying the historic airplane collection at the Imperial War Museum) – as the map goes from an airstrip to a cliff, and over the ocean for an eleven-and-a-half flight. Says one: “Dumbest thing we ever did”, while another jokes it was like a “flying Molotov cocktail” – and a lot of fun. Two proudly recall how useful their flights were even before the war started. By coming in over the desert at the Trans-Jordan border they provided advance notice of the gathering invading army positions. At the Egyptian border, a clearing through a sandstorm reveals a large attack force on the land and in the air – with visuals narrated by the pilots’ stirring description of how their years of war experience kicked in to push their “four junk airplanes” against a much larger, fleeing enemy who, they were surprised to see, had evidently not faced combat before.
Amidst footage of bombing and rubble in Tel Aviv (a child in our family was killed in such a strike), Israelis were surprised and confused by the landing of their own aircraft (caught on rare home movie footage). That none of the pilots could speak Hebrew (though some Israelis were later sent to the Czechoslovakian base for training as replacements) and none of the locals could speak English, they had to frantically signal to land at the makeshift base in the city outskirts. As they vigorously tell their stories of bravery and saving each others’ lives, they still bask in their heroes’ welcome, and the film follows up with who stayed on in the military and aviation industry. Spoiler alert: not all made it home – but one interviewed pilot, Harold Livingston, later became known as a writer for TV and Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
The participation of Shimon Peres, as the first Defense Minister and former Prime Minister, is not only the weakest interview, as he was in director Roberta Grossman’s Blessed Is The Match: The Life And Death Of Hannah Senesh, but also uncomfortably makes this seem like an official story, even as two other documentarians are preparing films on others of the approximately 3,500 Machal volunteers on the ground. For contemporary relevance, comparative ironies can’t help but soberly resonate to foreign idealists coming to the region today, such as the American adventurer drawn to fight in Libya and Syria featured in Marshall Curry’s Point and Shoot to the foreign Muslim jihadists portrayed in Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu.
Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
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Since August 2006, edited versions of many of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films have appeared in the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, Film-Forward; festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.
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