'Above and Beyond': Film Review

This fascinating true-life tale begs for feature-film treatment

Roberta Grossman's documentary, produced by Nancy Spielberg, recounts the story of the American pilots who volunteered to help Israel in its 1948 War of Independence

A fascinating little-known historical tale is stirringly recounted in Roberta Grossman's documentary about Jewish-American fighter pilots who volunteered to fight for Israel in its 1948 War of Independence. Seemingly ready-made for big screen Hollywood treatment, Above and Beyond has been a winner on the festival circuit and should have no trouble finding appreciative art-house audiences upon its Jan. 30 theatrical release. Ancillary prospects look even more assured.

Featuring interviews with several of the now elderly pilots involved, including a few who have since passed away, the film details the plight of the new nation that lacked an air force even as it was being threatened with extinction by neighboring Arab countries. Coming to their rescue were the Machal, or "volunteers from abroad," who embraced the opportunity to help those who has suffered so horribly in the Holocaust.

"The idea that Jews were going to fight, I found exciting," recalls Harold Livingston, who went on to become a Hollywood screenwriter (Star Trek: The Motion Picture). "It was about time."

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Although it features a combination of archival and recreated footage — the latter accomplished with special effects created by Industrial Light and Magic — the film's heart is the interviews with the pilots themselves who recall their exploits with infectious bravado. One, describing how the ramshackle airplanes smuggled into the region were "flying Molotov Cocktails," recalls his 11 ½ hour solo flight over water to get there.

"The only person I ever knew to do that before was Lindbergh," he says.

They recount their clandestine recruitment and secret training in such places as Panama, Italy and Czechoslovakia. "I was risking my citizenship and possibly jail time," says Gideon Lichtman. "I didn't give a shit. I was going to help the Jews out."

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One such figure who suffered the consequences was Al Schwimmer, who had served for the U.S. Air Transport Command during the war and who was responsible for smuggling about 30 surplus planes to Israel. He was later indicted for violating the U.S. Neutrality Act and lost his citizenship, relocating to Israel where he started an aircraft company. He was pardoned in 2001 by President Bill Clinton.

Among those interviewed, surprisingly enough, is actor Paul Reubens, talking about his father, the late Milton Rubenfeld, who flew on a critical mission against the Iraqi Army.

Produced by Nancy Spielberg (Steven's sister), Above and Beyond pays well-deserved homage to these men who helped create the Israeli Air Force and ensured the survival of the burgeoning nation. It's a wonder that it took nearly seven decades for the story to be recounted in feature documentary form.

Production: Playmount Productions
Director: Roberta Grossman
Screenwriter: Sophie Sartain
Producer: Nancy Spielberg
Executive producers: S. Daniel Abraham, Al Berg
Director of photography: Harris Done
Editor: Chris CallisterComposer: Lorne Balfe

No rating, 87 minutes