Above and Beyond is a warm mix of history and adventure. It feels like a Spielberg film. But Steven isn’t behind this one. His sister Nancy produced the documentary, which combines intimate interviews and exhilarating aerial footage to tell the story of Jewish-American pilots who smuggled war planes from the U.S. and flew them in the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. Spielberg will present Above and Beyond at the Indiana History Center tonight at 7:30 p.m. as part of the Indianapolis Jewish Film Festival.
NUVO: How did this project start?Spielberg: I had executive-produced a film for PBS before this called Elusive Justice: The Search for Nazi War Criminals. After that, I really wasn't looking for another film, but somebody sent me an email and said this should be your next film, and I get that a lot. I get that because either they want me to do something or they want me to give it to my brother to do. For some reason, I stopped to read this one, and it was an obituary. And it was titled, "Father of the Israeli Air Force Dies at 94." To my surprise, it went on to describe an American who was being credited with that, not an Israeli. That got me interested, and as I kept reading the obituary, it talked about how he bought World War II surplus planes and smuggled them out of the country against a U.S.-imposed embargo, how he recruited his buddies, how it was all very hush-hush and clandestine, except the FBI was chasing them. I went, "This feels like a big picture." To find a real story that makes you want to be eating popcorn while learning about it really got me.
When I learned about these guys, I thought about their motivations, like why would they survive World War II by the skin of their teeth, and then turn around and get involved in somebody else’s war, flying crappy planes and breaking the law?
NUVO: After researching these men, what did you discover when you talked to them in person that surprised you?
Spielberg: Through the research, I did not know that they were distanced from their Jewishness. That didn’t come out in anything I read. It came out in interviews. I was surprised by the emotion they brought to the table. I did not expect them to talk about their mothers and cry about their fathers and wonder whether they were disappointing or hurting or frightening them. I think that was the power of having a largely female team filming them. I think that opened them up. A lot of the macho pilot swagger sort of fell to the wayside.
NUVO: Like the other films in the Indianapolis Jewish Film Festival, Above and Beyond isn’t strictly about Jewish history — it’s a timeless, universal story of courage and compassion. What do you hope Jewish and non-Jewish audiences will take from it?
Spielberg: I really wanted to portray an American story, part of the American spirit. It’s partly about our service in World War II. We liberated the camps, we helped these poor people, but then many of them were walking into another potential genocide when they were coming into Israel. And we tried to help. That’s also part of the Jewish spirit — helping other people. Now, when there is a lot of anti-Semitism throughout the world, I think it’s important that we get a medicinal dose of Jewish pride.
NUVO: What are you looking forward to about the Indianapolis screening?
Spielberg: I feel like I’m on a college road trip. You know how everybody goes cross-country then? Well, I never went. So I’m getting to see America. I love connecting with audiences all over. Jewish or not, they lift me up.