Above and Beyond breaks one of my severest rules–don’t start with narration and then drop it. Above and Beyond starts with Eleanor Parker narrating the film, mostly because otherwise she wouldn’t be in it for the first hour. Once she is in the film full-time, the narration quickly disappears. I can’t remember the last time there was narration, but I don’t think it was past an hour and twenty minutes, which leaves about forty percent absent of narration. The film’s about the guy who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. I’m not up enough on my World War II history (from the American perspective) to know where the film made allowances, but it creates a compelling enough reality of its own. In many ways, the character’s saddled with more immediate responsibility than anyone else ever had before, which creates the condition for its success even though it fails on certain narrative levels.
The audience knows what’s going on and understands what Robert Taylor (as the pilot and commander) is going through. Except Eleanor Parker, as his wife, doesn’t know and the story–for a good portion–is from her emotional perspective. The film takes place over two years, with only the last hour being told in scenic detail. The rest is summary, occasionally tied together with Parker’s narration, occasionally not. The film isn’t quite a biopic, because it’s Parker holding the first hour together. Though Robert Taylor gets a lot more screen-time (maybe ninety-five percent overall), Parker’s a constant. The scenes with the two of them together, therefore, have to be perfect. They have to establish them as a married couple, they have to establish them as characters worth caring about–and co-writers and co-directors Norman Panama and Melvin Frank pull off those scenes. Maybe five minutes in that first hour is dedicated to such scenes and Panama and Frank get the work done.
Parker’s an obviously choice as the film’s best performance because she gets to do so much–play wife, play fighting wife, play new mother, play friend–while Taylor only has two general moods: upset and more upset. But Taylor’s performance is the better one–not through any fault of Parker’s, but because Frank and Panama understand how to address the gravity of the situation. It’s through little moments with Taylor.
The film came out in 1952 and has either a complex morality about the actual bombing or an undecided one. It accepts most reasoning on the subject will end up being flippant, but the film’s not about the overall morality, but the character’s. Occasionally when you turn a big story–a too big story–into a movie, something gels and it holds. Above and Beyond is probably the best of that rather specific genre. Frank and Panama manage to maintain nice filmic sensibilities throughout–giving the audience something to laugh at, making the marriage compelling–while appreciating they can’t actually tell their story… because it’s too big.