The latest Netflix import from Israel is an ambitious 10-part series set across two continents. “When Heroes Fly” comes on the heels of the highly successful thriller “Fauda.” Whereas the storyline of “Fauda” unfurled in the West Bank, “When Heroes Fly” takes the story from Tel Aviv to the jungles of Bogotá, Colombia.
Adapted from a novel by the late Amir Gutfreund, “When Heroes Fly” takes some big liberties with the original story. The book begins in 1967 just after the Six-Day War; five young men and one woman live near Haifa. Thirty years later, the men have had a falling out but reunite to rescue the woman—an ex-girlfriend of one of the men—who has been held by a cult in America.
The Netflix series makes some key changes in both the timeline and location. The five friends have become four, and the action takes place in the present-day and effectively deploys flashbacks to critical scenes that happen between 2006 and 2008. The series opens in the summer of 2006 when the four friends, Aviv, Benda, Dotan—who is nicknamed “Himmler”—and Dubi are on reserve duty during the second Lebanon War. Their commander, Azoulay, orders them to begin withdrawing from their positions in Lebanon. The men dub themselves members of “Team Azoulay,” and their charismatic commander keeps their morale up by telling them they’re just hours away from a hot shower in Tel Aviv.
However, their withdrawal goes terribly wrong, and they find themselves surrounded by Hezbollah guerrillas. Strategic orders from a command center in Israel have the area bombed, and consequently Azoulay is trapped under a boulder that Aviv cannot move. Surrounded by a determined enemy, Aviv faces the impossible situation of choosing between saving himself and the others or dying with Azoulay. Azoulay orders Aviv to retreat with his fellow soldiers.
Two years after the incident in Lebanon, Aviv, now a nightclub owner, begins to experience flashbacks to that fateful night. In an affecting sequence in the washroom of his nightclub, the walls begin to cave in on Aviv, and he experiences loud, unnerving gunfire in his head. Aviv’s memories eventually become debilitating and he leaves his beloved girlfriend, Yaeli, out of desperation.
Each of the men deals with the events in Lebanon in his own way. Benda, a Sephardic Jew, flees to Bogotá and becomes addicted to drugs. After some close calls with drug lords, he cleans up his act and opens an Israeli-style restaurant in downtown Bogotá with his adoring Colombian girlfriend, Maria. Himmler, the son of wealthy Ashkenazi Jews, takes over his father’s investment firm and in the interim 11 years has beaten cancer.
Dubi, a married father of two and a teacher at a public school, begins to question his Orthodox Judaism. Aviv has retreated to his mother’s apartment where he is coping poorly with his PTSD. Yaeli has gone to Colombia on an extended vacation to try to forget Aviv and dies in a car crash in the Colombian jungle. What notably comes through for American audiences in this tangle of storylines is the way the Israeli Defense Forces brings together soldiers who bond regardless of their cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds.
The first three episodes of “When Heroes Fly” focus on what happened to these four friends in Lebanon and the internecine animosities that ensued after Azoulay’s death. The flashbacks offer a deeper look at the men’s characters and lives and add complexity to the storyline. Himmler, in particular, blames Aviv for abandoning Azoulay, which adds a tough, almost impenetrable, emotional layer to these men’s relationships.
As the story flashes forward to the present day, Benda is shaken after he is sure he has seen a current photograph of Yaeli in a Colombian newspaper. He reaches out to his former friends and convinces them that Yaeli is alive somewhere in the Colombian jungle. Members of Team Azoulay reunite in Bogotá to look for her. With some serendipitous sleuthing, the men learn that Yaeli may have been kidnapped by a cult called “The Orphans” who are led by a mysterious Israeli known as “The Pale Father.”
Team Azoulay bands together to go on one last mission to rescue Yaeli. Their efforts, however, turn more caper than drama. As the men are drawn further into the Colombian jungle, verisimilitude and plausibility fall by the wayside. The audience is asked to suspend huge swaths of disbelief. How do the men survive for days with hardly any food and water? How do they find their way in the jungle with crudely hand-drawn maps? At that point, their mission becomes less thriller and more farce. To that end, the series spends too much time in the Colombian jungle, consequently dragging the storyline down with it.
Despite these flaws, “When Heroes Fly” is binge-worthy for the way it keeps an audience enthralled with its story. Is Yaeli really alive? Will the men survive this one last dangerous mission—in the Colombian jungle, no less? Will Aviv finally deal with his PTSD? “When Heroes Fly” ultimately compels audiences to stay tuned for the answers.