‘Charlie Victor Romeo’ Review: An Unusually Inspirational In-Air Nightmare [Sundance 2013]
Posted on Wednesday, January 30th, 2013 by Russ Fischer
Charlie Victor Romeo is sure to be among the most stark and unnerving films you ever see. By using real conversations between cockpit and control tower from scenarios that ended in airplane crashes, the film walks an atypical line between entertainment and education.
The sheer, visceral terror to be had in this adaptation of the long-running stage play might lead to claims of exploitation, but there are no sick thrills here. Charlie Victor Romeo, shot in 3D, puts us right in the cabin with crews feverishly working to save themselves and their live cargo. It engenders fear, respect, and a fascinated detachment. This is an unusual and unforgettable film.
Each of the film’s six vignettes features the same basic ingredients: the cockpit, rendered as a minimal set, with a few actors as the flight crew. The film’s title is NATO phonetic code for CVR, which stands for “cockpit voice recorder.” Boxes from several different planes are the source of the raw script, which documents a half-dozen aircraft crashes, and the circumstances that led to each disaster. Most are fatal, several involve significant casualties, and a few are due to base human error.
Charlie Victor Romeo is unsettlingly like a Twilight Zone anthology, albeit one in which every story has the same end. There’s a common opening: a title screen names the flight in question (for example, “Aeroperu Flight 603 Lima, Peru, October 2, 1996″), then a few schematics give hints to what’s about to go wrong. Each ends with a black screen featuring stark type listing damage and casualties. It only takes two of these before a deep dread sets in at the beginning of each successive scenario. We know that most of the lives connected to the flight will be lost, and we know that they were real lives.
The script isn’t audience-friendly. It is nearly the original cockpit chatter, full of untranslated jargon and technical terms. The meaning comes across just fine, however, and the tech-heavy talk helps create a sense of immersion and tense realism. At times the pilots exclaim more or less exactly what you’d expect them to: there’s not much substitute for “that’s a mountain, turn right!” But the noise of the cockpit, the overlapping streams of chatter, and the unfamiliar terms made listening to the film a bit like catching an unstructured, solo-heavy jazz trio. There’s an imposing sense of disorientation to contend with.Sound plays a big part in enhancing verisimilitude, more so even than the 3D. I fancied that my ears were popping in sympathetic response to perceived atmospheric changes during a few sequences. I can’t imagine that such a thing is actually possible, but that speaks to the commanding sense of immersion the film cultivates.
The transcripts enhance that sensation, too. There’s so much data, so much chatter, and almost maddening repetition of information, that even a relatively calm moment in the cockpit can be overwhelming. Reading more about some of the crashes it seems clear that even the pilots couldn’t properly hear and process everything being said in the cockpit and from the tower. Charlie Victor Romeo isn’t afraid to be off-putting in the way it realistically crafts the illusion of being in the cockpit. I very much appreciate the lack of pulled punches.
I came away from the film with a newfound respect for pilots and their heavy responsibility. Throughout each scenario, the planes seem like giant beasts that can only be controlled by mutual agreement. As one pilot says while facing a near-total loss of control, ”we’ve got to ditch this son of a bitch and hope for the best.” I can only begin to imagine the enormity of dealing with that chain of thought when hundreds of lives hinge on the outcome.
And so, while Charlie Victor Romeo could be the ultimate horror movie for anyone with even a vague fear of flying — and it certainly is a harrowing experience — I found it to be… oddly… reassuring. For despite the various problems that cause these crashes (and a couple of them are terrifyingly mundane) I took solace from the degree to which each crew was obviously well-trained, and dedicated to preventing a worst-case scenario from coming to pass.
Judging by the intense audience reaction at the midnight screening I attended, not everyone will agree. Many will find their fear cranked up to a fever pitch by the fact that an obviously competent crew couldn’t keep the planes in the air. I suppose one can choose to be stunned into shock by certain unavoidable truths, including the fact that circumstances can come together in tragic ways, or choose instead to accept it.
As an adaptation of the stage play, Charlie Victor Romeo‘s cinematic aspirations are admittedly minor. But the actors, who are veterans of the stage, do an excellent job with the unwieldy dialogue, and in the end the presentation doesn’t much matter. The power of the material is indisputable. Producers could have spent millions more to craft a more traditionally cinematic presentation, but this film can do exactly what it was designed to do: bring the terror, and the strange inspiration, of the stage play to an infinitely wider audience.