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Charlie Victor Romeo: Sundance Review

by John DeFore

Charlie Victor Romeo

The Bottom Line

Starkly adapted stage play is more harrowing for its simplicity.

An acclaimed off-Broadway play about aircraft emergencies makes an effective transition to the screen.

PARK CITY — Not the ideal choice for a fest where most viewers will soon be boarding planes back home, Charlie Victor Romeo is a harrowing collection of worst-case flight scenarios reconstructed from transcripts of actual “black box” cockpit recordings. Its unusual format will present distribution challenges, but broad awareness of the theatrical source material will help niche bookings, and word of mouth should be strong.

Those of us who pray for 3D’s demise were in luck at the film’s premiere Monday: Though the play was filmed stereoscopically, with sparse cockpit sets against an inky black void, hardware problems resulted in a 2D screening. It’s hard to see what 3D would add, given that the cockpit sets are only a few feet deep; directors Robert Berger and Karlyn Michelson have already done enough in their selection and variation of camera angles to provide a more visually involving experience than the stage could offer.

That experience is, to put it mildly, a nail-biter. Though the scenes don’t always begin in extremis (in fact, one starts with a long flirtation between pilots and a flight attendant) they all come to a point where even seasoned aviation vets face panic. In a case or two, shockingly little time elapses between the start of malfunction and the plane’s crash. In others, the emergency period is so long you have to remind yourself to breathe: The final scene, of a 1989 flight over Iowa, observes a plane that can no longer turn left, and must try to navigate to an emergency destination making only right turns.

Another chapter finds a cockpit in which all the instruments have ceased to function. Not knowing how fast they’re going or how high they’re flying, the pilots get status reports by radar while desperately searching through flight manuals for a fix. Their dialogue, in which words like “speed” are repeated endlessly for reasons we don’t understand, becomes a kind of terrifying, avant-garde found poetry.

If 3D is an unneeded gimmick here, seeing the filmed version on a big screen seems a must. Not just because a theater’s sound system re-creates the continuous rumble of jet engines in a way that puts us in the plane — and makes us sickeningly aware of turbulence and other disruptions. But because the ritualized presentation of these disasters — six of them play out in real time, with slides at the end of each informing us of the number of fatalities — adds up to a kind of unsettling spiritual experience, a communion with the dead that demands the quiet participation of a group: We who are alive honor your deaths by observing what you could not see — the fear and heroic struggle of men and women behind the cockpit door, doing all they could to bring you home safely.