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The first airstrikes for the Israeli Air Force, led by a round of boisterous Jewish American WWII veterans in the spring of 1948, were actually flown in swastika-bearing Nazi planes — Messerschmitt Bf 109s — that had been grounded in Czechoslovakia. (Wisecracking pilot Gideon Lichtman, who ended up flying 30 missions, called these decrepit single-propeller crafts “Messershits.”)
Though their bravery was vastly appreciated, these boozing, womanizing, macho volunteers, all under 30, often clashed with the far more somber, poverty-stricken Jews in Palestine, who were wary of a “second Holocaust” if Egypt, Iraq, and other Arab nations prevented the formation of Israel. Paul Reubens’s (a/k/a Pee-wee Herman’s) father was a daredevil pilot who, in a crucial battle, dropped bombs on the approaching Iraqi troops.
These are just a handful of awe-inspiring recollections featured in Roberta Grossman’s astonishing documentary Above and Beyond. In a fleet 85 minutes, Grossman profiles seven former pilots/IAF volunteers — several of whom have died since filming. Some were natural-born fighters who felt an immediate affinity with Israel; others barely considered themselves Jewish but were gradually moved to action because of Holocaust atrocities. All have a tweak of mischief in their eye; with their frequent bragging about “shtupping” local girls and “flying up the tuchus” of enemy aircraft, these are not teary-eyed, nostalgic sentimentalists.
Much of this history is grim, but the pilots are so exuberant that the film lands as light on its feet as Grossman’s enjoyably frivolous last outing, Hava Nagila. It will only be criticized — rightfully — for its skirting over the resulting plight of Palestinian refugees, but Grossman is surely capable of making an equally absorbing, entertaining film on that subject.