Above and Beyond is the dramatized story of Lt. Col. Paul Tibbets. Tibbets is a pilot who gets cross-wise with his superior at the beginning of the film. His integrity leads him to challenge his superior and leads to a transfer and demotion.
However, his guts in standing up for his men, to his own detriment, bring him to the attention of Maj. Gen. Brent. Brent questions Tibbets about a moral conundrum warning him that his answer will decide his future. Based on Tibbets response he is then assigned the top secret task of leading a new unit whose purpose is to improve and alter the B-29 aircraft so that it can successfully deploy the atomic bomb.
Tibbets is given fairly unlimited authority, but is sworn to utmost secrecy. He is charged not to discuss this project with anyone, including his own wife and the men under his command at his new base. The only other person who is aware of the details of their assignment is his base security officer. This is a project which spans a couple of years and involves the coordination and cooperation of many, with Tibbets bearing full responsibility for enforcing the rigid guidelines to maintain secrecy.
Although I wasn’t necessarily interested in the synopsis of Above and Beyond, I chose to watch it because I’m a fan of both Robert Taylor and Eleanor Parker who play Tibbets and his wife Lucy. It is a longer film at just over two hours and it took me at least a quarter of that time to become engaged with their story.
The first half of the film moves fairly slowly. It also involves a lot of military and aviation detail which I didn’t find all that interesting. But as I continued watching, I found myself drawn into the preparation and innovation required to drop the atomic bomb which wiped out Hiroshima. This story focuses less on the development of the bomb itself and more on the preparation of the plane (and men) which carry out the final mission. It surprised me and made me happy to see how seriously the project was taken. A long time was spent making sure every detail of the enterprise was tested to ensure there was absolutely no chance of error.
But history can be dry without the human element. What I found even more fascinating was the physical and emotional toll it took on those involved with the project, particularly Paul Tibbets and his wife. They begin the film clearly in love with each other even after several years of marriage. In all those years they have spent the sum total of less than several months together thanks to the war. Lucy is an understanding military wife, capable of managing their home and family in Paul’s long absences. But nothing prepares them for the strain of living together under the burden of secrecy and silence.
The heavy responsibility Tibbets carries slowly begins to weigh on him. His job causes his men and wife to misunderstand him. He is even accused of abusing his authority over his men and becoming puffed up on power. Only he has the full knowledge of what he and his men must accomplish. Only he (and his security officer) understand the necessity of enforcing such strict security measures. Even when it means he must punish one of his closest friends.
This also negatively affects his marriage. Lucy truly loves her husband but can’t comprehend the change in him. She wants to support and encourage him, but he refuses to talk to her. This drives a wedge in their formerly happy relationship and shows that the cost of war is not just physical. The emotional price is also high. Unfortunately, it is not just those in combat who pay this price.
Paul desperately loves his wife, but realizes that he must sacrifice their marriage for the greater good of ending a world war. That may sound extreme, but that is precisely what happens. The personal consequences Tibbets chooses to pay are contrasted against the bigger decision he initially makes when Maj. Gen. Brent asked him if he would be willing to sacrifice thousands of lives if it meant the end of the war. Yes, it is a great sacrifice of life. But in carrying out his duty Tibbets also ends up sacrificing the happiness and love he had known. Ultimately, he must also make the final call about the use of the bomb knowing full well that massive loss of innocent life is the result.
Like most films based on real life, Above and Beyond takes some liberty with the facts. But from what I can gather, it is also a fairly accurate portrayal. While I do find the details regarding the bomb itself educational and interesting, what I find even more fascinating is the personal aspect of this film. One often hears of the trauma of war and how it affects our military men and women.
What is less discussed is the psychological and emotional trauma experienced by the decision makers (leaders and commanders). Where is the victory in winning a war when the survivors must live with guilt, responsibility and the potential loss of their relationships with those who love them best? How can a loved one possibly understand the extremes a soldier experiences physically, mentally and emotionally?
Some films entertain and some are thought provoking. This is one of the latter. Above and Beyond exposes civilians to the authoritarian, regimented world of the military which requires sacrifice and obedience to a chain of command. I am thankful that I took the time to watch this film and expose myself to that world. It really makes me even more grateful for what our brave service men and women sacrifice on our behalf.