Film Review: Nancy Spielberg’s ‘Above and Beyond’ soars

MAM bannerAbove and Beyond poster12 November 2014 | Franklin, Tennessee. Before the showing of Above and Beyond Nancy Spielberg stood beneath the stage and provided the audience with a few personal reflections about her completed work. Ms. Spielberg explained that she became interested in the birth of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) upon reading the 2011 New York Times obituary of Al Schwimmer, who was identified as a ‘godfather’ of the IAF. That newspaper article generated the concept of Above and Beyond.

Yet, Nancy Spielberg confessed, “An aviation documentary was not the type of movie I typically make.” She continued, “Nevertheless, I felt the personal stories of these Jewish-Americans needed to be told before it was too late. As it was we lost two of the veterans before the project ended.”

The featured American fliers individually and jointly, as Playmount Productions states on its website, “embarked on personal journeys of discovery and renewed Jewish pride. “The guys are still sexy and exude chutzpah,” remarked Ms. Spielberg.

Upon the conclusion of her prelude, Nancy Spielberg stepped aside. The lights dimmed and the screen came to life with the sound of a Messerschmitt Bf-109, which was substituting for one of its Czech-built Avia S-199 IAF cousins.

Nancy Spielberg after the screening of Above and Beyond. Photo: John Stemple

Nancy Spielberg after the screening of Above and Beyond.
Photo: John Stemple

The background of Israel’s situation in 1948 was that Arab armies were advancing on Tel Aviv and ill-equipped Israeli ground forces were desperately fighting for survival. As dire as the situation was on the ground, in the air the Arabs flew unchecked because Israel possessed nothing with which to stem the tide of battle. Israeli leaders and perceptive Jews knew an aerial logistical and defense force had to be quickly created.

In response to the desperate need of the Jewish state and pleas from Israeli officials, a number of valiant Jewish-Americans offered their expertise and services. Clandestinely, these men obtained and smuggled planes to European airfields and others, referred to as ‘Machal’ (essentially meaning ‘volunteers from abroad), made their ways to Israel and entered the fray as pilots or mechanics.

The Franklin Theatre. Photo: John Stemple

The Franklin Theatre.
Photo: John Stemple

Going to Israel to fight was a serious and dangerous initiative. Furthermore, due to their foreign military volunteerism the Americans risked the loss of their citizenship and possible imprisonment by the U.S. Government.

However, fresh in the Americans’ minds were recent events and unresolved issues. The foregoing included the 1939 MS St. Louis affair, during which Jewish refugees were denied entry by the American, Canadian and officials of other countries, the recent Holocaust and lingering European antisemitism.

Israel's first fighter. An Avia S-199 'Mule' in 1948. Photo: Public Domain

Israel’s first fighter.
An Avia S-199 ‘Mule’ in 1948.
Photo: Public Domain

Those who share their personal experiences and remembrances in the film include Americans Leon Frankel, Lou Lenart, Gideon Lichtman, Harold Livingston, Al Schwimmer, Milton Rubenfeld and South African Smoky Simon. Paul Reubens (of ‘Pee-wee Herman’ fame) speaks of his father (Milton Reubenfeld) and the parent’s contributions.

Referring to living veterans and those who have passed, Ms. Spielberg stated, “I still get emotional.”

The Franklin Theatre. Photo: John Stemple

The Franklin Theatre.
Photo: John Stemple

More than an hour after the first frame came to life on the screen Ms. Spielberg again trod to the front and provided additional insights about the making of the film and replied to questions. She noted that Above and Beyond was filmed in the United States, Israel and the United Kingdom. Ms. Spielberg also informed those in attendance that some of the primary filming was done at Duxford, England utilizing Imperial War Museum aircraft. She then related an ironic piece of information: One of the Supermarine Spitfires used for background shots was, in fact, noted Nancy Spielberg, “a former IAF Spitfire.”

Nancy Spielberg chats with patrons. Photo: John Steemple

Nancy Spielberg chats with patrons.
Photo: John Stemple

Although the production work is complete and ‘in the can’ so to speak, the educational phase is earnestly underway. Ms. Spielberg and the production companies plan to schedule additional screenings around the country. Furthermore, Nancy Spielberg told 20th Century Aviation Magazine the following: “We hope to interest aviation organizations in the hope that they will assist in spreading the word about the film.”

Those who braved the frigid air of an Artic cold front to view the documentary this evening were effectively and entertainingly transported back to the significant era. Additionally, during the closing credits viewers are treated to spectacular scenes of contemporary IAF aircraft, including TA-4 Skyhawk and Beechcraft T6-A Texan II trainers, aloft.

Ms. Spielberg and her entire team are to be commended for their efforts, and the inspirational and occasionally humorous Above and Beyond is highly recommended.

Nancy Spielberg visits with attendees. Photo: William Commerford

Nancy Spielberg visits with attendees.
Photo: William Commerford

For Nancy Spielberg historical accuracy was a goal, and with the exception of a very few unintentional or unavoidable lapses, it was maintained throughout. The only disappointment related to the viewing experience was that those present desired ‘more’ when the engrossing film ended. Fortunately, Ms. Spielberg informed everyone that “a DVD containing additional footage will be available for purchase sometime around May 2015.” Readers should know that Above and Beyond contains a small amount of profanity and descriptions of violence and could therefore be considered to have a ‘PG-13’ rating.

Film poster outside The Franklin Theater. Photo: John Stemple

Poster outside The Franklin Theater.
Photo: John Stemple

Above and Beyond is a joint production of Playmount Productions and Katahdin Productions. Sophie Sartain contributed as Writer and Roberta Grossman directed the informative offering. Harris Done is responsible for the remarkable cinematography and Chris Callister served as Film Editor. Hans Zimmer’s Studio contributed the music and Lorne Balfe was the Composer. The special effects, which are excellent, are a product of Industrial Light & Magic. Mr. Jeff Thomas was the Aviation Consultant.

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This reviewer (John Stemple) is grateful for assistance provided by Nancy Spielberg and Nashville Jewish Film Festival representatives. A note of thanks is also owed The Franklin Theatre staff & volunteers and Nashville Women in Film & Television officials for providing Nancy Spielberg, Jews in Aviation members, 20th Century Aviation Magazine personnel and other attendees with an appreciated dose of Southern hospitality. Furthermore, Mr. and Mrs. Paul Lebovitz also merit my gratitude for hosting an enjoyable post-screening gathering.

Sources, Suggested Readings & Viewings

2014 Nashville Jewish Film Festival

http://nashvillejff.net/

Above and Beyond

http://aboveandbeyondthemovie.com/

Beechcraft T-6 Texan II (‘Efroni’)

http://iaf.org.il/901-en/IAF.aspx

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beechcraft_T-6_Texan_II#Israel

Douglas A-4 Skyhawk

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Douglas_A-4_Skyhawk#Israel

Flying at Duxford

http://www.iwm.org.uk/visits/iwm-duxford/flying

Jews in Aviation

http://www.jewsinaviation.org/content.aspx?page_id=0&club_id=738936

Katahdin Productions

http://katahdin.org/flash.html

M.S. (Merchant Ship) St. Louis

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MS_St._Louis

Nashville Jewish Film Festival

http://nashvillejff.net/

Playmount Productions

http://playmountproductions.com/

The Franklin Theatre

http://www.franklintheatre.com/

The Tragedy of S.S. (Steam Ship) St. Louis

http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/stlouis.html

They Were All We Had – The Birth of the Israeli Air Force, DVD, International Historic Films, Inc., 2005.

Voyage of the St. Louis

http://www.ushmm.org/outreach/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007701

Weiss, Jeffrey and Craig Weiss, I Am My Brother’s Keeper: American Volunteers in Israel’s War for Independence 1947-1949, Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 2004.

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