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'Charlie Victor Romeo' and the Poetry of Plane Crashes

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire January 31, 2014 at 2:14PM

Watching the movie whose dialogue come from the black boxes of downed planes is like confronting your own death, but in a good way.
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There are moments in Charlie Victor Romeo, whose script comprises transcripts taken from the black boxes of crashed airplanes, when the frantic exchanges between pilots and co-pilots approximate a kind of found poetry:

Mach trim

Speed

Mach speed trim

Overspeed

Overspeed

There's no overspeed

It's fictitious

Everything is fictitious

There's something unnerving, even ghoulish, about observing the final moments of Charlie Victor Romeo's half-dozen crews, knowing that every one of their planes is eventually going to go down. (The title refers to the NATO phonetic alphabet acronym for "cockpit voice recorder.") Each of the movie's six segments begins with the clack and whirr of a slide projector, as if we're watching an NTSB presentation on what went wrong, but we're only provided with the barest of information: the flight number and type of the aircraft involved, the number of passengers and crew on board, and the designated crash site, plus a few meaningless schematics. Almost unbearably, the minimalist preamble omits the crucial information of who lived and who died, which means we're just as blind to the eventual severity of the crash as the characters we're watching.

Those characters, who are named only by their positions -- "Pilot AA1572," "Flight Engineer Yukla27" and so on -- are played by a small, rotating cast of actors drawn from the Collective: Unconscious theatre company, who originally mounted Charlie Victor Romeo as a stage production. In fact, that's mostly what you see on screen: a few pieces of set dressing floating in the black of an otherwise empty stage, with the occasional disembodied mouth representing the voice of an air traffic controller on the ground. With very few exceptions, the camera is fixed, approaching its subjects at right angles, either from the front or the right-hand side -- a limitation perhaps necessitated by the fact that the movie was shot in front of live (though silent and unseen) audiences, but which also adds to the formal, almost ritualized experience of watching each incipient disaster.

The film's co-directors, Robert Berger, Patrick Daniels and Karlyn Michelson, have said they made the unusual step of filming a theatre piece in 3D because they wanted to add "intimacy," but the effect is the opposite. Rather than pull us into the world of the stage, the stereoscopic photography constantly reminds us we're watching a construct -- which, though contrary to the filmmakers' intentions, is as it should be. If you want to subjectively experience the sensation of being in a plane crash, then Flight or Peter Weir's Fearless are far superior. If you want psychological drama, try United 93. As it turns out, cockpit crews don't grasp each other for comfort as their planes head towards the ground, or mumble a quick prayer or record a final message to their families -- at least these ones don't. Their last recorded words are, from a strictly dramatic perspective, inert: a screamed "Left left left!" or a half-completed yell of surprise.

Charlie Victor Romeo takes its abstraction to sometimes frustrating lengths. There's more information about the crashes it depots on the movie's Wikipedia page than in the film itself. (It's not surprising one of the audiences it has had most success with is trained pilots, who already know the histories involved.) But then the crew of what turned out to be the deadliest disaster in the history of aviation didn't know they were about to take their place in the record books. One of the movie's more prominent themes is communication, how effective collaboration between the cockpit crew and those on the ground can avert or lessen the impact of a crash, and how miscommunication can make it worse. But it's also, on the most elemental level, about death. Even though some of the movie's reenactments begin in mid-crisis, none of the people they depict know whether they're going to live or die. In some cases, the time elapsed from the first hint of trouble to the crash is only a few minutes; in one case, there seems to be no warning at all. And how much more discomfiting is the idea of our own death when we're confronted with the fact that we might not even know it's coming? Dying's bad enough; death without meaning seems even worse.


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