Encore's four-hour miniseries "Hindenburg: The Last Flight" (8 p.m. next Monday and Tuesday) is indeed a disaster -- just not the kind producers intended.
TV can excel at good historical fiction. Just look at the success History is having with "Vikings" (6.2 million viewers for its premiere episode Sunday night) or HBO with "Boardwalk Empire" or even AMC with "Mad Men." Historical fiction has had an appeal to me ever since the first "North and South" miniseries in the 1980s. So I approached Encore's "Hindenburg: The Last Flight" predisposed to liking it.
And yet... the catastrophe of "Hindenburg" goes well beyond its story of a 1937 zeppelin explosion in New Jersey.
Read more after the jump. ...
First, there's the plot. When "Hindenburg" surfaced as a project on the schedule for Encore, my first thought was: Why hasn't anyone told this story for TV in the past?There was a 1975 movie but historical fiction works so well as a miniseries, it's surprising there hadn't been a miniseries prior to this one.
In the case of "Hindenburg: The Last Flight," the emphasis is more on the "fiction" than the "history" as the story comes wrapped in a conspiracy plot that kicks off with a murder before the giant airship makes its fateful final flight to the United States. It's true that sabotage theories have proliferated over the years surrounding the Hindenburg crash but none was ever proven.
Even before the conspiracy kicks into high gear, "Hindenburg" suffers from a serious case of plain weirdness. The dialogue and its delivery -- by all the actors, not just one or two -- is consistently stilted.
It's as if the actors in this German production are speaking in a foreign language and being dubbed, although lip movements match the dialogue too precisely for that. Still, the intonations are largely robotic, as if spoken by animatronic characters from a theme park.
"I'm captain of the Hindenburg and I don't let anything get my ship off course!" declares the Hindenburg's pilot.
Yes, "Hindenburg" borrows from past disaster flicks, using the tropes of fearless executives, arrogant leaders and the fey, anti-Nazi entertainer who stands up to the Nazis on board Hindenburg and revels in making everyone uncomfortable.
The miniseries was written by Johannes W. Betz and directed by Philipp Kadelbach, a native of Frankfurt who began his film career in Pittsburgh in the mid-1990s, including a stint working on projects at WQED (the station has no record of him as an employee but he may have done freelance work for the PBS station). The film has a decent look to it and the special effects, though not exceptional, are passable. The opportunity to see the insides of a luxury airship proves interesting, at least to us aviation geeks.
The story follows engineer Merten Kroger (lanky-haired Maximilian Simonischek), first glimpsed flying a glider and crashing it into a lake. He's fished out by a wealthy socialite, Jennifer Van Zandt (Lauren Lee Smith, "The Listener"), who turns out to be the daughter of an American industrialist (Stacy Keach, "Prison Break") with an interest in the Hindenburg. He wants to end FDR's embargo against Nazi Germany so he can sell helium to Hindenburg's parent company. Jennifer travels on Hindenburg with her mother, Helen (Greta Scacchi, "Presumed Innocent").
Kroger learns of the possibility of a bomb on the Hindenburg from Jennifer's fiance then the smitten Kroger sneaks aboard the ship to try to prevent the bomb from going off. By the end of the first two-hour installment, viewers learn the identity of a conspirator in the bombing when the person announces to the bombmaker: "Be sure to time it for after we've gotten off the ship."
You can see where part two of the four-hour miniseries wants viewers to think it will go: Hindenburg burst into flames over Lakehurst Naval Station in Machster, N.J., for the lamest reason of all: It was late.
When the ship finally arrives in America (about 20 minutes before the end of the second two-hour installment), viewers finally get the destructive sequence they tuned in to see, complete with the radio announcer who screams, "Oh, the humanity!"
How heroic characters escape and survive is almost as laughable as how the evildoers die. One conspirator stands stock-still in a hallway as if awaiting the giant fireball coming up fast from behind.
Much of the mayhem is reminiscent of "Titanic" when the ship split in two and passengers slid across the deck. How characters escape from the burning, crashing Hindenburg is visual mayhem. From outside the ship is crashing and inside people are still jumping out windows. It's as if events on the interior don't match what's happening outside the ship. Maybe that's why "Hindenburg" has resisted dramatization in the past: Unlike a slow-moving disaster, everything that went wrong on "Hindenburg" happened in a matter of seconds, making it impossible to keep track of a miniseries' worth of characters in anything approximating real time.
No question about it, "Hindenburg" is as disaster -- from start to finish.