TV review: 'Hindenburg' miniseries burns and crashes


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Encore's four-hour miniseries "Hindenburg: The Last Flight" (8 p.m. 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 last Sunday). But the catastrophe of "Hindenburg" goes well beyond its story of a 1937 zeppelin explosion in New Jersey.

'Hindenburg: The Last Flight'

When: 8 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, Encore.

Starring: Maximilian Simonischek, Lauren Lee Smith, Stacy Keach, Greta Scacchi.

First, there's an emphasis 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 plain weirdness. The dialogue and its delivery -- by all the actors, not just one or two -- is consistently stilted.

It's as though 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 audio-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 pilot.

Yes, "Hindenburg" borrows from past disaster flicks, using the tropes of fearless executives, arrogant leaders and the fey 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, according to an Encore press release, 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 outlet).

"Hindenburg" has a decent look to it -- production design of the swanky passenger lounge aboard the ship seems period appropriate -- and the special effects, though not exceptional, are passable.

The story follows engineer Merten Kroger (lanky-haired Maximilian Simonischek), who is 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 this person announces to the bomb maker: "Be sure to time it for after we've gotten off the ship."

You can see where part two of the miniseries wants viewers to think it will go: The Hindenburg burst into flames over Lakehurst Naval Station in Manchester, N.J., for the lame reason that 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 wails, "Oh, the humanity!"

The ways in which heroic characters escape and survive are 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 the outside, the ship is crashing in a fireball but inside people are still jumping out windows with limited fire around them. It's as though events on the interior don't match what's happening outside the ship. Maybe that's why "Hindenburg" has resisted miniseries treatment in the past: Unlike a slow-moving disaster, everything that went wrong on "Hindenburg" happened in a matter of seconds. This makes it impossible to keep track of a miniseries' worth of characters in anything approximating real time.

No question, "Hindenburg" is a disaster -- from start to finish.

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A version of this review first appeared in Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. TV writer Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.


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