In a sign of Israel’s burgeoning confidence as a producer of quality television, an increasing number of its series are venturing further afield to tell their stories.
These include the lauded Netflix thriller “Fauda,” which made a small geographical step but a giant ideological one by heading into the West Bank; “Juda,” about a lowlife Israeli gambler who gets bitten by a vampire in Romania (as you do); and “America,” an upcoming comedy about a group of Israelis trying to make it in the United States.
The 2018 Israeli thriller “When Heroes Fly” (now showing on Netflix) is arguably the standard-bearer for them all. It’s not the best Israeli show ever, for sure, but it is one of the most ambitious, being set over two continents and multiple time frames – it’s just a shame it sounds like some woeful power ballad from the 1980s.
It’s easy to see why the Israeli company behind the show, Keshet, is already working on an American version. And while there is definitely room for improvement in any potential U.S. remake, the original is still gripping and moving enough to satisfy anyone with a Doron Kavillio-shaped hole in their lives.
What it does best is show how in Israel, mandatory army service is the melting pot that throws diverse groups together – so an Ashkenazi elite or Orthodox Jew can end up taking orders from a scrappy Mizrahi kid in a combat unit – and how these formative experiences bond them like brothers for life.
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Created, written and directed by Omri Givon – who probably did the on-set catering as well – “When Heroes Fly” premiered to strong viewing figures in Israel last spring (Netflix has done that weird thing it often does and turned what was originally a nine-part series into 10 here).
It’s loosely based on the 2008 novel “Heroes Fly to Her” by the late Amir Gutfreund, with Givon relocating most of the overseas action from Chicago to Colombia. He has also, I’m guessing, introduced the subplot about a substance that has the potential to transport your mind into another portal – and, yes, that storyline is as bonkers as it sounds.
The other big change is the timeline: While the novel unfolded over three decades following the 1967 Six-Day War, here the action takes place in the present-day with flashbacks to several other key times – most notably 2006 and 2008.
Providing a clear link to “Fauda” is actor Tomer Kapon, who plays Doron Kavillio’s baby-faced brother-in-law in the latter and protagonist Aviv Danino here. He’s one of four young men who served in the Israeli army under commanding officer Azoulay (Dan Mor), forging “Team Azoulay.” But after they are called up as reservists during the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006, their withdrawal plans go awry and they end up caught in a bloody firefight with Hezbollah guerrillas.
Eleven years on, the four men are at very different stages in their lives: Aviv is back home with his mom, having spent the past nine years suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Yakir “Benda” Ben-David (Moshe Ashkenazi) has spent the past decade wrestling with his own demons in Colombia, where he has belatedly cleaned up his drug-fueled act and opened a hummus joint in Bogotá with Colombian girlfriend Maria (Vanessa Chaplot). He is also sporting a mullet that should be viewed only by consenting adults, not impressionable youth.
Dov “Dubi” Ashkenazi (Nadav Netz), meanwhile, is teaching at a public school but has started questioning his Orthodox religious lifestyle. And Dotan “Himmler” Fridman (Michael Aloni – best known as Akiva in “Shtisel,” now also available on Netflix) is a wealthy investor who has questionable people skills (hence his nickname) and a checkered health past.
And there there’s Yaeli (Ninet Tayeb), Dubi’s sister and Aviv’s former partner. She went on a vacation to Colombia nine years ago and died in a tragic road accident. Except Benda is convinced he’s just seen a photograph of her in a Colombian newspaper. He reaches out to his former comrades-in-arms and they head to Bogotá to try to track Yaeli down.
“When Heroes Fly” is a strange beast. At its best, it’s reminiscent of “Hatufim” (aka “Prisoners of War,” aka the show Showtime remade as “Homeland”), with both shows powerfully depicting the silent horrors of PTSD as ex-soldiers struggle with their wartime experiences. The portrayal of PTDS is far more everyday than the Hollywoodized depictions we’ve seen in the likes of “Jacob’s Ladder” or “American Sniper,” with each of the four men haunted in different ways by the events of that August 2006 night in southern Lebanon.
There is also a brilliant sequence in which nightclub co-owner Aviv, two years after returning from Lebanon, suddenly starts getting flashbacks to the horrors of that fateful night – walls start collapsing in the nightclub toilets and “bullets” start flying as everything he has bottled up starts to be released.
The set-up over the first three episodes is excellent as the former army buddies struggle to overcome personal animosities. The flashbacks are also really well deployed, offering nuanced characterizations of each man’s past that add complex new emotional layers to the storyline.
The performances are also uniformly excellent, with special honors going to Aloni for managing to play Himmler as such a likeable asshole. Kapon gets the showiest role, but Aloni’s performance is the one that really stays with you.
The show’s biggest problem is that the closer we get to finding Yaeli, the further we get from plausibility. Her fate is linked to a strange cult in the jungle called the Orphans and a mysterious figure called the “Pale Father.” But the journey to find her is less “Heart of Darkness” and more “Tropic Thunder.” Also, while the show was shot on location in Bogotá and the Colombian countryside, that’s a bit less impressive if the much-vaunted jungle we are warned about is a five-minute drive from the Colombian capital and looks like a forest planted by the JNF.
It also looks like the most user-friendly tropical vegetation in the history of South American jungles – certainly a far more pleasant experience than the bug-ridden, Amazonian one Daniel Radcliffe’s Yossi Ghinsberg suffered in the 2017 film “Jungle.”
The show also does something really strange about two-thirds of the way through when it introduces a completely new Israeli character – a police inspector played by Yael Sharoni – and focuses on her for almost an entire episode. It’s the kind of unconventional direction they might have gotten away with in a quirkier show like “Mr. Robot” – but here it almost fatally kills the Colombian story’s momentum.
Still, this is the kind of story structure problem they should be able to fix in the remake (there are other problems involving some poorly drawn leading characters once the story heads into the jungle). And they may also want to be more careful when they use stock footage of aircraft: When (our) heroes fly to Colombia, they are seen on a four-engine jet – yet when they land in Bogotá their aircraft only has two engines. I’ve been on some nightmarish El Al flights over the years, but even those never managed to shed two engines en route.