The origins of the Israeli Air Force in 1948, shortly after the country was founded, evoke the kind of pulpy B-movie adventures that came out of Hollywood around that time. As newly liberated Jews began to take refuge in Israel following World War II, Arabs in neighboring Middle-Eastern countries mounted an offensive that would eventually lead to the first Arab-Israeli War. Hearing of the vulnerable Israelis’ almost insurmountable odds, a small group of scrappy Jewish-American pilots who fought in WWII flew to the Middle East in an effort to help, and, with only a limited amount of planes and supplies, ultimately proved successful in warding off the Arabs.
In Above and Beyond, director Roberta Grossman understands the pilots’ globetrotting exploits, which took them from South America to Morocco to Italy and beyond before arriving in Israel, as a cathartic respite of sorts between the two wars. The candid first-person accounts given by the pilots about these escapades, which included trysts with local women and long nights on the town, provide insight into the pilots’ mindsets in the midst of more grueling days of battle: Coming out of one war, the pilots were tragically aware of how easy it was to be killed, and, going into another war, they seemingly filled up on as much pleasure and excitement for one lifetime while they could. Grossman creates a compelling paradox, in that the detailed stories of this time period illuminate a harmless and lively verve that stands in stark contrast to the shadow of death that was constantly hanging over the pilots.
While this middle section proves to be psychologically astute, even entertaining and poignant, the pre-WWII lives of the pilots are only discussed in brief. This creates very little context into their motivations for traveling to the Middle East to engage in another war, as well as their Jewish heritage. As Grossman presents it, the pilots are only fighting in Israel because they’re Jewish, though the interviews with the subjects clearly hint at something more complex; in failing to elaborate on such personal history, the filmmaker unintentionally flattens her subjects so that they become undistinguishable from one another. This evasion of insight even runs through the rushed recounting of the Israeli-Arab War, as important events and figures are reduced to mere footnotes rather than viewed through uniquely personal perspectives. Grossman may channel the loose, adrenaline-fueled lives of pilots, but the film’s inconsistent, often impassive study of this intriguing real-life adventure feels half-told.