An obituary told a tale that "reached out and grabbed me," says Nancy Spielberg. "I felt that it would make a great feature film."
She was right.
Above and Beyond, the documentary Spielberg produced about Jewish airmen who flew combat missions for a newborn Israel in 1948, will be screened Tuesday, Dec. 15, at Congregation Beth El in Voorhees.
The producer, whose brother is director Steven Spielberg, will be on hand for a reception and a question-and-answer session.
"It's something I absolutely love doing because everywhere I go, it's like getting a hug," says Nancy Spielberg, 59, who was born in Camden and spent the first few months of her life in Haddon Township. She grew up mostly in Arizona.
Above and Beyond "is riveting and exciting to watch," says Yaffa Fuchs, Beth El's educational director. "It's wonderful."
The movie got enthusiastic reviews during its brief theatrical run in 2014. It has picked up several prizes, been booked at 120 film festivals, and was released on DVD in October.
Watching it last week on Netflix, I was fascinated by a dramatic historical narrative I knew nothing about.
The under-the-radar effort to provide Israel with air power involved a phony Panamanian airline, salvaged German Messerschmitts, and no small amount of heroism. Three years after the Holocaust, it also helped save the fledgling Jewish nation.
"I wanted to make a feel-good film about Israel," Spielberg says. "I didn't want to make a propaganda film."
The use of archival footage in Above and Beyond is deft, and its re-created scenes are understated and (blessedly) brief.
The interviews with the pilots, most of them American Jews and World War II vets, are what give the film heart and soul. They're a rather rowdy, ragtag, and inspiring band of brothers.
"Nothing was going to stop me," Leon Frankel, a bomber pilot who was awarded the Navy Cross for his service in the South Pacific, says in the film. "I couldn't live with myself if I didn't do this."
One of the dozen or so men interviewed in the film died before it was finished, and three more - including Frankel - have since passed away.
"It was important for them to get their due," says Spielberg, who was inspired by the 2011 obituary of Al Schwimmer, the mastermind of the effort to provide Israel with air power.
"I didn't know who he was," she says from her home in Riverdale, N.Y. "But the more I learned about the story, the more enthralled I became.
"I couldn't understand why these guys would do what they did. They survived the war. Why go back? They weren't Zionists; they were not really connected with their Jewishness."
After receiving her brother's blessing - she was concerned he might be interested in making such a film himself - Spielberg set about raising money.
"His foundation did give a donation, but that was not my first money in nor my largest contributor," she says in an email. "It was though a wonderful vote of confidence!"
The film cost about $1.5 million but has the look of something far more expensive.
The computer-generated imagery "work that George Lucas' company, Industrial Light and Magic, did was done almost entirely pro bono which was a HUGE gift," Spielberg says, also by email.
The producer notes that because her father, Arnold (still going strong at 99), served with the U.S. Army during World War II, she could relate to the elderly gentlemen who, as dashing young fellows, flew combat missions during the Arab-Israeli War.
But she and her director, Roberta Grossman, didn't want the film to end up being called "a bunch of old guys sitting around talking," says Spielberg.
From Los Angeles, Grossman notes that their goal "was to make a film that would tell a great story with as high production values and as much craft as we could muster."
"The most important thing was to touch people," Grossman adds. "Not only to inform, but move them."
Steven Spielberg among them.
"I held back from asking him for guidance because I really wanted to stand on my own," Nancy Spielberg says.
"When I was almost done with the film and showing it to friends and family for notes, that's when I showed it to him. He told me that he absolutely loved it . . . and I made him cry!"