Above and Beyond

Roberta Grossman and Sophie Sartain are back! What, you didn’t know they were gone? You didn’t know who they were, even? Well, let me put you some knowledge: The two collaborated on the wonderful Hava Nagila some years ago, and have now put together an entertaining and stirring documentary on the Israeli Air Force at the dawn of that countries creation.

The Boy and I loved this. The story of Israel is one of the great underdog stories of all time, as a bunch of scrappy, beat-up Jews managed to reclaim their ancestral homeland outnumbered by orders of magnitude by a virulent mix of ancient enemies mixed with a virulent progressive philosophy (Muslims inspired by Naziism).

The story begins when the British, sympathetic to the Jews’ plight post-WWII but not so sympathetic as wanting to alienate all the oilarabs in the Middle East punt the question of the Jewish homeland to the UN. The UN reaches the pinnacle of its existence by voting to give the Jews their homeland back, and then doing nothing as the surrounding Muslim nations plan to invade once the British withdraw.

In anticipation of the attack, the future Israelis scramble to assemble an air force. The US has tons of planes just rotting, but—despite having voted for the homeland—immediately bans the export of all weapons to Palestine. Then a funny thing happens: A lot of air force pilots, mostly of Jewish descent but not particularly religious and very American, decide the Jews have been kicked around enough, and join the struggle.

Since the U.S. Air Force—and this is particularly awesome—has a “buy a plane on the cheap” plan for former pilots, one of them buys a dozen and sets up a fake cargo company that hops around the world to avoid detection of their real motives. There’s a particular joy in hearing all these 90-year-old vets recount their world travels as handsome young flyboys in Panama, Rome and finally…Czechoslovakia.

The Czechs are eager to help the Israelis, or at least eager to sell them abandoned Messerschmitt 109 fighters. Or, to be even more precise, sell them flying jalopies cobbled together from 109s and whatever spare parts (including bomber engines) they had lying around.

As the Arab invasion begins, the Israelis have three of these planes, and about half-an-hour training.

It’s just a great story of heroism, luck (both good and bad), and questions of purpose and meaning (especially for the secular Jews who find themselves key to Israel’s survival). Grossman and Sartain tell the story in a almost-too-short 90 minutes, alternating between showing us the interviewees, some stock footage and some recreations.

On the three-point scale:

1. Importance of topic: Awesomely important.

2. Delivery: Simple, straightforward, but not dry. The mix of approaches keeps us interested. The stories are like the ones your grandfather would tell, only cooler and with a point.

3. Bias: It’s a one-sided story. Pro-Israel. Pro Air Force. Pro-Israeli Air Force. Personally, I don’t see any need for “balance” here. From the moment of its inception, the Arabs have hated the notion of Jews having a right to exist in their own country. They were never interested in peace, and the fact that tiny little Israel kicks their asses at every turn delights me.

Bonus points for Surprise Pee-Wee Herman, whose father was one of the original pilots.

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