AFI Fest 2013: ‘Charlie Victor Romeo’ Review

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The airline industry should be thankful that Charlie Victor Romeo will likely never be seen by anyone besides the art house crowd. Were the documentary to somehow become popular, it could do to air travel what Jaws did to beach-going and the public perception of sharks. When we fly, we do our best to sit back, relax, try not to think about the fact that we’re traveling in a giant metal machine tens of thousands of feet up in the air going hundreds of miles per hour, and trust that the crew knows what they are doing. And hope that nothing goes wrong. When things go wrong, people die. Charlie Victor Romeo is about what happens when things go wrong on planes.

The doc is a filmed version of a stage play that’s been running since 1999. It’s been brought across mediums by the play’s original creative team: writers/co-directors/actors Patrick Daniels and Robert Berger, co-director/editor Karlyn Michelson, and writer/actor Irving Gregory. The show consists of six scenes that each recreate the situation inside the cockpit of a plane during a real-life aviation disaster. The script is based on transcripts of the cockpit voice recorders from each of those crashes. For the most part, the dialogue is taken verbatim from the recordings. Some of the incidents are well-known, such as the 1985 crash of Japan Airlines Flight 123, while others are more obscure. A small cast of actors is reused from scene to scene, switching roles around. The vignettes vary in length, one running just a few minutes while the longest is a half hour.

This is the kind of documentary whose very classification as a documentary might be seen as contentious. Ultimately, though, it is a factual film that is dramatic, though the facts are filtered through thick recreation. There are touches that rejigger the truth somewhat. One moment has a pair of pilots wordlessly checking out a flight attendant, something that of course cannot be ascertained from an audio recording. And the actors work from the script, not from the actual recordings, so while they say the same words that the real-life flight crews did, they are not saying them the same way. The real figures might have been less panicked, or more. But the artifice is in service of a greater goal, which is to capture the scramble to survive when the systems to protect us have failed.

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The first scene is of a non-fatal incident and mainly serves to set the stage for what is to come. It establishes the normal, casual tone of cockpit interaction before jarringly disrupting it. From then on, each segment adapts a crash that was horribly deadly. Airplanes are mighty contraptions capable of defying gravity, but they run on hundreds of moving parts that must all work in tandem. If just one of those parts malfunctions, then the consequences are potentially catastrophic. More than 99% of planes take off and land safely, but that’s not what you think about whenever you hit turbulence, and that’s not what this movie is about. A plane crash is a special kind of horror because the victims are utterly helpless. The scary thing about Charlie Victor Romeo is that it suggests the people in charge are just as helpless as the passengers.

Each scene introduces the name of each flight, the type of plane involved, and the number of passengers and crew onboard. Otherwise, unless the viewer is an aviation buff or randomly knows about that particular flight, they are just as in the dark about what is happening as the characters. While the particulars of each incident varies, there are a few constants. Pilots and co-pilots do their best to remain calm throughout, running through procedures and adapting their flight style to adjust for new factors. In every case, though, they are merely delaying the inevitable. At the moment of impact, the screen cuts to black, and we learn how many people died, and the cause of the crash. This is where our identification with the characters ends, since these are things the victims never knew.

The actors are able to pull off the impressive task of reciting reams of technical jargon while both emoting well and sounding like they know what they are talking about. Recycling them for each new scene feels like a misstep, though. Perhaps one could argue that it helps them represent “the pilots” as a sort of archetype, but it somewhat lessens the impact of these peoples’ deaths when we see them alive and well in the next scene. Overall, the conceit of the film, while ingenious, wears thin over time. It’s not a long movie, but it still probably could have dropped one of the sections without hurting anything. Additionally, the use of 3D, perhaps the biggest artistic addition that comes with the translation from stage to screen, makes next to no impression. The camera work is already very functional, and the set work is minimalistic, so the slightly added depth is negligible.

Charlie Victor Romeo is imperfect, but it is a singular piece of work. It’s also enormously effective, destroying what’s left of what pretensions of safety you imagine whenever you feel a jolt on a flight. Each recreation is ridiculously stressful as it builds, as you have no idea when or how it will end. This is one of the scariest documentaries ever made, and one of my favorites this year.

Charlie Victor Romeo’s next stop on the festival circuit is this weekend at CPH:DOX. It will open theatrically in January 2014.

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LA-based writer about movies, TV, and other assorted culture stuff. Work collected at http://danschindel.com/