Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 1, 2019)
Disaster movies have one serious obstacle they all have to overcome: from the start, everyone knows what will happen. If you see a movie called The Swarm, it seems like a pretty good bet that you'll see a lot of vicious bees, for instance.
At least movies like that offer suspense in that you don't know the progression of events or how they'll end. Yeah, we'll assume that they douse the fire in The Towering Inferno, but we still find lots of room to be creative.
As such, the challenge for historically-based films becomes much greater. We all know how Titanic and The Hindenburg will end, so there wouldn't seem to be much opportunity for tension.
Titanic worked so well because it took the emphasis off of the sinking itself and put it on the characters. A lot of disaster movies attempt this, but they usually don't succeed.
Even if they'd gone the straight disaster route, makers of Titanic still could spend a lot of time dealing with the sinking itself, as it took that sucker a lot of time to finally submerge.
Fewer opportunities greeted the creators of The Hindenburg. For that craft, there would be no hours-long finale. About half of
Titanic took place after the ship hit the iceberg, but if The Hindenburg devoted half of its length to the events after the blimp blew, the movie'd only last about ten minutes.
So The Hindenburg needed to find some other way to tell a story. The film focuses on the events that occurred during the Germany to US voyage itself and it emphasizes the mystery surrounding the fateful event.
In real life, no one ever clearly determined why the dirigible exploded, but the movie bases its plot on the sabotage theory. As such, its story becomes mainly a mystery as we watch Nazi Colonel Ritter (George C. Scott) try to find the potential saboteur.
In many ways, the movie really resembles a game of
"Clue". We have the cast of potential baddies, and the protagonist has to determine which one did - or was about to do - the crime.
While this setup probably doesn't sound very good, The Hindenburg delivers a fairly compelling and well-executed film. While we learn the identity of the saboteur midway through the picture, director Robert Wise does a solid job of continuing to provoke excitement and suspense.
The movie didn't exactly have me on the edge of my seat - especially since we know the thing's gonna blow at some point - but it kept me interested and stimulated, which is a pretty good achievement.
The Hindenburg offers a pretty decent cast, with George C. Scott cast as our protagonist. Unusually, he's actually an officer in the German army - yep, he's a Nazi!
But he's a "good Nazi" as it were, so we learn that he doesn't accept the Nazi ideas and biases. It's pushing it to make Ritter a good guy, but Scott makes him effectively human and convincing.
Ultimately, I liked The Hindenburg a fair amount. It's not a great movie, but it's a cut above what I expected. The film seems well-crafted and provides a fairly thrilling experience, even if you do know how it'll end.