Charlie Victor Romeo derives its script entirely from the black-box transcripts of crashed planes whose fatalities ranged from zero to total. Originally staged in 1999 at the New York theater venue Collective:Unconscious, CVR was filmed—in 3-D to boot—in front of audiences in August 2012. The hybrid feel, a mix of live TV and stage play, seems appropriate to a work that inherently rests on a blend of the immediate and the canned. Already aware that something horrible is about to happen, viewers observe pilots attempting to avert disaster in virtual real time. (The cause of each accident is given only at the end of a segment.) The title is air-traffic-speak for “cockpit voice recorder,” but it also confers a human dimension on the data and schematics of FAA reports.
The flight-phobic should quickly book tickets for another movie. Charlie Victor Romeo depicts a spectrum of aviation catastrophes, ranging from the frighteningly brief (an Air Force flight in Alaska that hits a flock of birds) to the agonizingly prolonged. A 1995 crash in Connecticut illustrates how rapidly a situation can turn from standard operating procedure to sheer terror, while other flights—such as 1996’s Aeroperú 603—seem calamitous from the get-go, as an able pilot and co-pilot try everything they can to fly their plane without knowing its speed or altitude. The movie hints at flirtatious banter among the crew of a 1994 flight that encountered unexpected icing outside O’Hare. Other situations find stoic, consummate professionals dealing with equipment they can’t control. The final of the six flights, United 232 from 1989, suffered hydraulic failures and could only make right turns; the segment shows how even heroic triage can only do so much. In keeping with the theatrical feel, the seven cast members play multiple roles.
In every case, pilot training would be necessary to judge whether anything more could have been done. Charlie Victor Romeo may intend to be instructive—the dedication to the victims proclaims that their “sacrifice brings the human race forward”—but the film is also a sobering, alarming portrayal of competent, innocent people facing certain doom. Coupled with functional camera setups and a spare yet evocative sound design, the 3-D enhances the film’s claustrophobic aspect, turning each cockpit into a backdrop worthy of Samuel Beckett. (Given the passengers aren’t shown, the movie has the stifling feel of a submarine picture.) There’s something morbid, arguably even obscene, about any work of art that appropriates the words of the deceased, but Charlie Victor Romeo illustrates how suddenly and precariously individuals can go from life in anonymity to being the public faces of disaster. Whatever reservations it prompts, the film is innovative, original, and queasily effective.