Some subjects are so controversial that it’s impossible to address them without raising extreme emotions.
  The Iraq War is one. Even though director Clint Eastwood avoided addressing the politics behind the war in American Sniper, the film still sparks angry reactions. While some viewers hail it as an anti-war document, others see it as a defense of an invasion that most Americans agree was a disaster.  

  Equally contradictory emotions are likely to greet the documentary Above and Beyond—or they would if it attracted any viewers who didn’t already agree with its sentiments. Directed by Roberta Grossman (Hava Nagila: The Movie), it details the efforts of flying World War II veterans who returned to the air in 1948 to defend the new state of Israel.

  It’s a compelling story, and an uplifting one for those who see Israel as these Jewish Americans did: a haven for a people who’d been the targets of the Holocaust, and who could never fully escape the age-old problem of anti-Semitism.

  Others, including some Jews, have trouble separating Israel from issues such as displaced Palestinians, encroaching Israeli settlements and even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent attempt to waylay a nuclear treaty with Iran.

  Suffice it to say that Grossman’s film is not made for these critics. Though it devotes a sentence or two to Palestinian problems, it spends most of its 90 minutes celebrating the achievements of a few veterans who went back to war to protect Israel from the concerted Arab attack that began as soon as Great Britain evacuated Palestine in May 1948.

  According to the film, Israel might well have died in infancy if it hadn’t been for these men. With no tanks and no established air force, it was severely outgunned by the Arab forces.

  Providing crucial air cover took courage, but it also took cunning and subterfuge. Though it was relatively easy to purchase war-surplus American fighters and bombers, a U.S. embargo meant the planes and their pilots had to take a roundabout route to the Middle East.

  Interviews with several of the surviving pilots show that they joined the dangerous endeavor because they were committed to establishing a Jewish homeland, even though some doubted it would survive.  

  This is no mere talking-heads doc, however. Produced by Nancy Spielberg (sister of Steven) and featuring special effects by the George Lucas-founded Industrial Light & Magic, this is a polished product that expertly melds vintage wartime footage and convincing re-enactments.

  Above and Beyond may not change anyone’s minds about the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it provides a memorable explanation of how Israel survived its difficult birth.

  Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

The unknown talents behind the hits

  The desire to honor your late father is a great reason for making a film, but it doesn’t guarantee the film will be equally great.

  Director Denny Tedesco started making The Wrecking Crew in 1995 after his father, Tommy Tedesco, was diagnosed with cancer. What he finally came up with is a detailed portrait of the guitarist and other studio musicians who played an invaluable role in popular music recorded in and around the 1960s.

  “Let the Sunshine In.” “Good Vibrations.” The theme songs to TV’s Mission: Impossible and Hawaii 5-0. If you’ve heard these or dozens of other classic tunes, you’ve heard the group of backup musicians loosely known as the Wrecking Crew.

  Tedesco’s documentary is chock full of biographical details on these musicians and juicy tidbits about the hit songs they helped to create. The only thing it lacks is a structure that would turn these details into a cohesive narrative. One gets the feeling that the director finds his father’s world so fascinating that he assumes everyone else will, too.

  To some extent, he’s right—at least for those of us who grew up with this music or fell in love with it after the fact. It’s fascinating to learn that a few talented but anonymous musicians played the notes that were credited to groups ranging from the Beach Boys to Tijuana Brass.

  Belatedly, the doc asks whether it was right that the musicians’ contributions weren’t acknowledged in album liner notes. One of the most thoughtful answers comes from the late Dick Clark: Probably not, he says, but it would have been embarrassing to admit that so many albums in so many genres relied on the work of such a small group of musicians.

  As cinema, The Wrecking Crew falls short. As music history, it’s highly recommended.

  Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

  Above and Beyond (not rated) and The Wrecking Crew (rated PG) open Friday (March 20) at the Gateway Film Center, 1550 N. High St., Columbus. For show times, visit