Jewish American World War II veterans wearing Nazi gear and flying re-purposed Messerschmitts for the newly formed country of Israel — it might be the dramatic highlight of a period film by Steven Spielberg. But that paradox-rich episode is among the first-person recollections in an eye-opening documentary, “Above and Beyond,” produced by his sister, Nancy Spielberg, and directed by Roberta Grossman.
Though naggingly simplistic in its historical scope, the film offers a fascinating chronicle of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war through the eyes of a daring group of men. Arriving through clandestine channels, they built an air force from scratch — starting out, as one participant puts it, with “four people and four junk airplanes.”
Grossman doesn’t step back for a broader, contextualizing view of the Middle East; the film contains a single comment on the 1948 war’s ramifications for displaced Palestinians. But as an oral history of the pilots’ experiences, it’s indispensable.
Impressive CGI combat reenactments supplement the evocative archival material, and scholars provide background commentary. But it’s the pilots themselves, recalling the danger and thrill of the undertaking nearly 70 years later, who drive the narrative. The twinkle in their eyes is unmistakable as they describe rambunctious younger days.
None of them was especially religious or identified as Zionists, but the Nazis’ genocide against Jews galvanized them. Though they don’t speak of WWII in terms of personal trauma, there’s a haunting sense that they found purpose and renewal as fighter pilots for Israel. Their enterprise, spearheaded by a TWA engineer with all the intrigue of a spy novel, involved the purchase of planes in Czechoslovakia and California, money transfers in Manhattan and a fake Panamanian airline. There were stops in Italy and, yes, Casablanca.
‘Above and Beyond’
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Playing: Sundance Sunset, Los Angeles; Laemmle’s Town Center 5, Encino; Laemmle’s Royal, West Los Angeles; Laemmle’s Playhouse 7, Pasadena