Drama Where You’d Want It the Least: In the Cockpit
The visible action in “Charlie Victor Romeo,” a new 3-D film adaptation of a stage play first performed in 1999, consists of unfamiliar actors in familiar uniforms reciting verbatim dialogue from official transcripts. Directed by Robert Berger, Patrick Daniels and Karlyn Michelson, it is a curious hybrid of documentary and experimental theater. It is also one of the most terrifying movies I have ever seen.
This is because the spoken words are drawn from the cockpit voice recorders of doomed airline flights, the devices usually referred to as “black boxes” in news articles about plane crashes. (The film’s title refers to the aviation industry jargon for the recorders.) The final moments of six emergencies are re-enacted, after which a note on the screen dryly provides the cause of the accident and the number of survivors.
Most members of the small cast appear in several roles — in effect, returning from the dead — which adds an eerie, haunting detachment to an already nerve-racking experience. The 3-D makes the figures on the screen at once more real and more ghostly. They hover in darkened space, trying to fight off the final and inevitable blackout.
The sets are minimal: Doors and instrument panels evoke cockpits, and we never see into the passenger cabins where most of the future fatalities are sitting, their panic the invisible mirror of our own. Occasionally, a flight attendant or an air traffic controller will appear as a disembodied mouth speaking into a microphone. But mostly, we stare head-on at the flight crew, as if peering in through the front window of the plane.
And we watch as calm routine escalates from anxiety into terror. Sometimes that takes a long time, as when the pilots of a flight out of Lima, Peru, discover that none of their equipment seems to be working, or when a crippled United Airlines flight prepares for an emergency landing in Sioux City, Iowa. Other episodes are shockingly brief. It takes just a few seconds for a couple of errant geese to bring down an Air Force plane in Alaska.
The principal actors — Mr. Daniels, Irving Gregory, Noel Dinneen, Sam Zuckerman, Debbie Troche and Nora Woolley — do a good job of conveying professionalism under duress. A few of the scenes begin with playful banter, and even a hint of flirtation between a pilot and a flight attendant. As things go wrong, the language is dominated by a mixture of technological jargon (heavy on numbers and abbreviations) and profanity. Jaws clench, beads of sweat appear on brows, and breathing accelerates.
You might have a similar reaction. Whether you will find it pleasant, cathartic, thrilling or just dreadful is another question. After the third chapter of this 80-minute movie, my screening companion, a somewhat nervous flier, excused herself and went to wait for me in the Film Forum lobby. It was not only duty that prevented me from joining her, but also a morbid fascination with catastrophe.
There is something else that makes “Charlie Victor Romeo,” horrifying as it is, weirdly soothing as well. All of the accidents it recreates are drawn from the 1980s and ’90s — in other words, before the Sept. 11 attacks added a grisly new dimension to our fear of flying. The crews in this movie must grapple with bad weather, mechanical failures and human error, which have terrible consequences but are not in themselves evil.
And the movie, while effectively scary, has a curiously abstract feel, and an almost banal mood. It gives us a detailed elaboration of what we already knew, which is that air travel is tedious and, for the most part, safe, until those rare, unimaginable moments when it is suddenly none of those things.