Film Review: Spielberg Soars with Above and Beyond

IMG_6185Celebrity siblings can be tough acts to follow. Especially when you’re a Spielberg.

“Steven doesn’t get all the attention in the family,” quipped Nancy Spielberg, whose words instantly elicited the faint howling of every Jewish kid-sister living in the shadow of a Mensch.

For her first visit to the Twin Cities, Spielberg was given an especially warm welcome from a sold-out house at the historic Riverview Theater.

“Usually, Jews get together and they fight,” said Spielberg, embracing (with understandable disbelief) a warm and loving Jewish community.  It was fitting, since the film she was here to present was about Jews getting together and fighting.

Above and Beyond, directed by Roberta Grossman and produced by Spielberg, is a heartfelt and compelling war documentary about the first Israeli Air Squadron, “The 101.”  In 1948, as the British prepared to withdraw from Palestine, the new State of Israel faced, to say the least, some tough odds.  Five Arab armies, among them regional powers Egypt and Jordan, prepared to invade the moment the British checked out.  The Jewish population, a mixture of pre-existing settlements and post-war arrivals from Europe, could barely field an army, let alone what became a most vital resource– an air force.  Without counterattacks from the air, the Jews would certainly be defeated in battle, and probably much worse.

AboveandBeyond3The film chronicles the formation of the “Machal,” a group of volunteers from across the globe, thrown together under the leadership of David Ben-Gurion and his often shady subordinates. These pilots, most recently discharged from extended service in World War II, risked life and livelihood for the cause of Israel. Guarded under heavy secrecy, they were able to acquire German Messerschmitt aircraft (which, post-WWII, were in terrible condition, hence their nickname, the “Messershits”), fly them to Israel, and launch counter-attacks against the attacking Arab ground forces. Ultimately, their bravery helped turn the tide of the war, and led to the creation and security (albeit temporarily) of the State of Israel.

Among those brave pilots was Leon Frankel of St. Paul, a highly decorated WWII pilot. While the film doesn’t focus on any one pilot, Frankel was featured, and was in attendance for the screening.  His salvo, “What’s a nice Jewish boy from St. Paul doing over here in Palestine?” got a big laugh and, I think, would be the thoughts on all our minds in that situation.  After the film, he gave further insights to his experience during a Q&A session.

The real test of any documentary, especially one so heavily imbued with religion and politics, is how well it can tell a story. Regardless of viewpoint, Above and Beyond is a story worth hearing. Today, we think of Israel as a powerful military force, particularly in the face of continual (and perhaps endless) aggression from its neighbors.  But an examination of its origins in 1948 yields a different story: abject poverty in the military camps, political instability, and a complete lack of resources.

But in came the fearless Machal, flying planes seemingly held together with scotch-tape and prayers, to support the ground defenses, push back the invaders, and help win the war. They were volunteers, driven only by their belief that Israel needed to IMG_6182happen. Viewers may feel any number of ways about Israel, but the story must be respected.  These guys risked it all, out of faith and a sense of duty, and got the job done against crazy odds. We should all pay homage.

The evening’s events were sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Sabes JCC, and the St. Paul JCC; and presented as part of the Twin Cities Jewish Film Festival at the Riverview Theater, which, I found out, happened to have been designed by two Jewish architects in 1948. It was my first time in the space, and if you’ve never seen a flick there, check it out.  It’s a super cool spot, with a vintage feel that befits its South Minneapolis setting.

And Kudos to you, Nancy Spielberg, on an excellent film and historical document.  I have a tough time following Tovah Leibowitz, so I can only imagine how you feel.

Your move, Steve.