A brilliant new Dutch thriller shames El Al for its darkest hour – Haaretz

There are conspiracy theories aplenty in ‘The Crash,’ about the El Al cargo plane accident in Amsterdam 30 years ago. Plus: ‘High Water,’ ‘The Playlist’ and ‘Notre-Dame’ on Netflix
Most people don’t need another reason to disparage El Al (the “He” at the start of the name is silent). Tell someone your flight was late because its staff were on a slowdown and they’ll probably ask: “How could you tell?”
And the reputation of the Israeli national carrier will definitely not be improved by the terrific new Dutch drama “The Crash” (“Rampvlucht,” or “Disaster Crash,” in Dutch) – a five-part thriller based on the El Al Flight 1862 disaster in Amsterdam exactly 30 years ago this month.
In fact, the only good news for El Al is that no airline will ever want to screen “The Crash” as part of its in-flight entertainment, since the series recreates the events of October 4, 1992 in impressively bleak fashion. That night, at least 43 people died after a poorly maintained El Al Boeing 747 cargo plane lost both of its right engines just after take-off from Amsterdam Airport Schiphol and soon afterward plowed into two apartment blocks in the Bijlmermeer neighborhood, largely populated by immigrant families. (The reason the death toll remains unverifiable is that it’s not known how many undocumented migrants were in “the Bijlmer” at the time of the crash and may have been incinerated in the aftermath of the plane’s direct hit.)
Dutch creator Michael Leendertse spent over a decade pondering how he could turn the disaster into a series, and that long-gestating thought process is evident in the way he has cleverly constructed his series. He finds smart ways to tell his story, which is always presented from the perspective of the outsiders seeking to uncover the truth. Their discoveries become our discoveries – even if that’s historical facts about the Dutch government’s long-standing support of Israel and the Israeli army, most notably during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Leendertse describes the end result as a fictional account based on heavily researched facts. That approach is most evident in his decision to present a mix of factual and fictional characters as his protagonists: two tireless Dutch journalists working the story and an equally dedicated lawmaker are based on real people; a young veterinarian who lives in the Bijlmer and questions the official story is fictitious, but an important construct to represent the immigrants whose lives were either ended or upended by the crash.
The titular event itself is just the beginning of this particular story (indeed, some of its mysteries are still unanswered to this day). Assembling all of the facts as he sees them, Leendertse crafts a gripping conspiracy theory thriller, shining a light on some very dark areas – most notably, what was actually onboard the El Al cargo flight that night? Was it really just perfume bottles, flowers and computer parts, as the Dutch authorities and El Al insisted for many years? Or was something considerably more toxic being transported from New York to Tel Aviv via Amsterdam that day? And yes, it turns out that El Al transports something even more toxic than its in-flight kosher meals.
I’m still waiting for English subtitles to be provided for the final episode, but even if the series fails to stick the landing – and apologies for the use of that particular metaphor in these circumstances – this is still must-see television suggesting some horrific practices at El Al that we can only hope were long-since abandoned. Some of its planes at the time, for instance, were riddled with technical flaws due to poor maintenance and, as the old joke goes, were so ancient they had outside toilets.
“The Crash” just won the award for best TV series in its native Netherlands, and it’s easy to see why. I can offer no higher praise than saying that the show it most reminded me of was “Chernobyl” – another miniseries looking at a totally avoidable disaster and the authorities’ subsequent attempts to bury the truth along with its victims.
I’m always a sucker for any thriller that features socially inept journalists whose dogged pursuit of the story eventually leads to some form of justice – from “All the President’s Men” through to “Spotlight” and the upcoming “She Said.” And “The Crash” gives us a couple of great journos in the form of dweeby aviation correspondent Vincent and dissolute, aging hack Pierre. I particularly loved Vincent, increasingly spooked by (what he believes to be) Israeli spooks trailing him as he starts delving deeper into events.
Kudos to Cellcom for picking up the show for Israeli audiences – though locals may wince at a couple of scenes supposedly set in Tel Aviv that look more like Venice than the Israeli coastal city. Still, it’s a rare misstep in an otherwise brilliant series.
Floods and fires on Netflix
I’m always whining about the glut of new product to choose from every week on Netflix, and nowhere is that problem greater than its almost-daily arrival of foreign-language shows. Aggravating the issue is the lack of critical attention these shows receive (it would be a full-time job for several TV critics to review all of Netflix’s output), so often the only way to know if they’re any good is to suck them in and see if they, um, suck.
I just watched three new European productions – Poland’s “High Water,” Sweden’s “The Playlist” and France’s “Notre-Dame” – and would say that, in order, they are excellent, entertaining and dreadful.
“High Water” is a very impressive six-part thriller about a flood that hit the southwest Polish city of Wroclaw in July 1997, killing 56 people and leaving 40,000 others without any belongings to their name.
Unlike “The Crash,” “High Water” presents us with a completely fictitious set of characters – which grants the creators license to really have fun with their set-ups.
The two leads, for instance, are given a complicated shared backstory and differing current-day challenges: Jasmina Tremer is a methadone-swilling hydrologist who has dropped off the grid but is sounding the alarm about a potential flood in Wroclaw; Jakub Marczak, meanwhile, is the city’s deputy mayor, doing his best not to mishandle a huge water hazard and end up looking like Mayor Larry Vaughan in “Jaws” (although as a brilliant T-shirt I recently saw on Twitter points out, the mayor in “Jaws” is still the mayor in “Jaws 2” – so make sure you always vote).
There’s so much to love about “High Water” – and not just the way the show handles the flood so impressively when it eventually arrives. There’s also a fascinating look at the tense dynamic between city folk and villagers when each finds their homes under threat, and the question of whose lives are more expendable. Then there’s the rich historical seam of a Poland recovering not only from almost 45 years of communism, but also German occupation.
True, there was one plotline involving Tremer and her mom that I didn’t buy, but otherwise this is a totally engaging thriller, peopled by great characters and a nice line in mordant wit – such as when our hydrologist heroine is assured by a builder that a heavy load she’s about to walk under is being held up by an old German pulley system. “But the rope’s Polish, right?” she shoots back.
There is also plenty to enjoy in the Swedish drama “The Playlist,” about the rise of music streaming giant Spotify and its co-founders Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon.
This six-parter adopts a novel approach by telling its story from six different perspectives, starting with “the vision” of Ek and ending with “the artist” (a fictitious Swedish singer-songwriter called Bobbi T), encompassing “the industry,” “the lawyer,” “the coder” and “the partner” en route.
The problem it faces, though, is that Spotify does not (yet) have the story arc of many of the startups that have graced our screens in recent times. Unlike the founders of WeWork, Theranos and Uber, we have no classic “rise and fall” tale here since the billionaire Ek is still very much still calling the shots at Spotify (and he’s yet to hit 40).
Instead, the creators peer into the future and [SPOILER ALERT] end the series by imagining Ek being forced to face the music at a 2025 Senate hearing in Washington. I found this a dissatisfying conclusion: after all, if I wanted to listen to a lecture about the evils of Spotify, I’d just search for a Taylor Swift interview from 2014.
While the denouement disappoints, that shouldn’t detract from the first five episodes, which prove highly entertaining and, at their best, trigger memories of “Steve Jobs” and “The Social Network.” Like.
Finally, there’s “Notre-Dame,” an overheated French thriller about the fire that threatened to destroy one of Paris’ greatest landmarks. Veteran filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud has already turned the events of April 15, 2019, into a disaster movie with “Notre-Dame on Fire.” This may be why TV series creator Hervé Hadmar focuses as much – if not more – on other events in Paris that tumultuous night, including a debt-ridden falafel restaurateur (!) searching for his estranged escort-junkie daughter in order to bring her to the hospital bedside of his dying wife.
Believe it or not, this is one of the more plausible storylines in an increasingly preposterous series that feels like a Gallic “The Towering Inferno” directed by Luc Besson at his most imbecilic. What’s French for “avoid”?
It was pure coincidence that all of the shows I reviewed this week revolved around real-life events. Each took different approaches in bringing them to life, but it is surely no coincidence that the two most effective, powerful ones (“The Crash” and “High Water”) had the most compelling original storylines to work from. Still, one great thing all three of the Netflix series had in common? Not one was about serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.
“The Crash” is available now on Cellcom TV. “High Water” and “The Playlist” are out now on Netflix, while “Notre-Dame” is on Netflix from Wednesday.
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