Louis C.K. has a great bit about people who moan and groan about the inconveniences of air travel. “I had to sit on the runway. For 40 minutes!” they’ll say, to which he responds, “Oh my God, really? What happened then? Did you fly through the air, like a bird, incredibly? Did you soar into the clouds, impossibly? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight?”
There’s something highly unnatural, and undeniably wonderful, about the way we so casually step into these winged metal shells and emerge, just a few hours later, half a world away. But human flight is a miracle of science, and every once in a while, because of engineering issues or even just a stray Canada goose, the promise of science can stumble. At that point, something more natural and human takes over — the response of the pilot and crew means everything. That’s one of the ideas at the heart of Charlie Victor Romeo, a taut, effective little picture whose dialogue consists wholly of transcriptions of actual cockpit recordings, most of them from flights that ultimately crashed. (The movie takes its title from the code used for “cockpit voice recorder.”) The film is an adaptation of a play first staged in New York in 1999, and it was shot in 3D on bare-bones sets with a small group of actors. That setup may sound too resolutely conceptual to be emotionally effective, but the movie’s restraint — its refusal to overdramatize events that are inherently dramatic — makes it feel immediate and vital. Charlie Victor Romeo shows us how much of life’s weight and meaning can be packed into one second of thought or action; it’s a work of shivery intimacy.
What can go wrong on any routine flight? You probably don’t want to know, but Charlie Victor Romeo will give you some idea. The picture, co-directed by Robert Berger, Patrick Daniels, and Karlyn Michelson, dramatizes the final minutes leading up to six aircraft disasters, minutes in which flight crews scramble to gain control of their planes, attempt to navigate using old-school methods after all of their electronic instruments have failed, and even, in one case, get up to pee. A rotating cast of actors plays the various crew members, mostly pilots and copilots, with the occasional flight attendant popping in. (All scenes take place in the cockpit; no passengers are heard or shown.) Much of what these pilots say, to one another or to ground control, sounds fairly benign: “We still got ice.” Other times, a sense of urgency seeps through their surface calm: “We don’t have any controls, not even the basics.” In one case — a moment so fleeting you could almost miss it — a pilot suggests to a flight attendant, with a casual bit of slang, that she might survive what’s about to happen, but he probably won’t. It’s possibly the most moving, the most devastatingly human, moment in the film.
Interstitial slides provide, in stark white letters on a black background, the grim fatality statistics (in most of the instances dramatized, all passengers and crew were killed) and the ultimate explanation for each disaster. For example, “Static ports left taped over by maintenance crew” — you may not know, technically, what that means, and yet you know what it means. Another case is tragically straightforward: “Multiple bird strikes.” One goose flying into an engine is bad; more than one can spell disaster, a mark of just how vulnerable we are when we’re lucky enough to be up in the air.
Charlie Victor Romeo is a tense experience. It leans heavily on our sense of apprehension, our knowledge that in real life, the events depicted resulted, for the most part, in death. There’s a huge risk here for exploitation, even the unintentional kind: These are the words of real people who are about to die. At one point, we hear the voice of a flight attendant urging passengers to hold their babies tightly. Does that step over the line of what we want to know, or should know, about the moments before a tragedy? Possibly. But Charlie Victor Romeo treads respectfully, with a sense of honor and discretion, around the dead; it’s a somber movie that, in the end, is really more about life, and about how much nerve it takes to keep us clumsy, wingless humans up in the sky. The 3D effects are subtle, and the picture works well enough on the small screen. But I’d urge you, if possible, to see it in a theater. By the end, you might be grateful for the presence of other souls aboard.