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Review: Charlie Victor Romeo

By Jordan Osterer on January 27, 2014

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Unlike reality-TV mainstays like Seconds From Disaster or Air Crash Confidential, Charlie Victor Romeo functions without dramatic music, CGI simulations, voiceovers, or testimony from aviation experts. All of the dialogue in the film, which is based on a 1999 play, comes word for word from actual black-box recordings retrieved from six different ill-fated airplanes. Set entirely inside the cockpit, save for an occasional, grainy shot of a faceless air traffic controller speaking into a microphone, the illusion of the airplane as a safe, normally functioning machine dissolves.

Charlie Victor Romeo

Despite its fraught premise and 3D presentation, Charlie Victor Romeo is far from a disaster movie. There are no stories of heroism or survival, nor is the movie concerned with fetishizing (or even depicting) the spectacle of collisions. Each segment begins the same way, with text giving the date of the crash, a blueprint of the plane, and the flight number. And each segment concludes just before the moment of impact, cutting to details about the cause of the accident and the total number of fatalities and survivors. Still, the narratives aren’t entirely predictable: some show the peril gradually unfolding, while others begin with the plane already in distress. All are relentlessly tense, and we savor the comfort of duration: as long as the plane is in the air, some hope remains. The fourth account—an Alaska Airlines flight that runs into a flock of birds—is particularly devastating because it unfolds so quickly, with less than five minutes between the beginning of the crisis and the crash. The third account, by contrast, involves a lengthy back-and-forth between the beleaguered pilot and co-pilot as they desperately try to figure out what’s going wrong. 

Charlie Victor Romeo is too deliberately impersonal and distanced to be labeled conventional docudrama; the same small cast appears across multiple segments. It’s a meticulous depiction of trauma, fashioned into a feature, though introductory text assures us that any edits to the dialogue were made for time or clarity, not for content. The bare-bones structure and presentation (3D effects aside) are in service of a sobering conceit: that these frightening incidents strike without notice and often without reason. Sometimes, there’s not even enough time to diagnose, let alone prevent, the problem. As viewers, we have the clarity and burden of hindsight. Charlie Victor Romeo is rooted in fear and panic, but it’s also a deeply empathetic film. It terrifies us with its unflinching fixation on these desperate scenarios, and while the directors eschew characterization entirely, we’re nonetheless bound by an instinctive compassion—a genuine, often futile hope that these people will make it out alive.

Charlie Victor Romeo

The film’s only shortcoming involves its use of stereoscopic 3D. The intention is to cultivate a feeling of proximity—to bring us directly into the cockpit. Nothing jumps out at the screen, but the light lost as a result of this technology does the film a disservice, especially during some of the early segments. While it’s affecting to see the beads of sweat on a pilot’s forehead, the overall image quality is sometimes a bit fuzzy. Since the visuals are largely static, there doesn’t seem to be any specifically filmic reason to use 3D, and it comes across as an attempt to recapture the theatrical intimacy of the original production. At times, the 3D presentation nearly contradicts the movie’s intentional—and effective—minimalism. 

Given post-9/11 aviation anxieties, the film feels almost anachronistic. These crashes are never caused by terrorism or deliberate sabotage; they’re accidents, the product of pure happenstance. Charlie Victor Romeo lingers on moments of catastrophe but stops short of showing the wreckage or the subsequent emotional fallout, and the dry presentation sidesteps melodrama or exploitation. Instead of acting as a piece of morbid voyeurism, the movie tasks us with caring about the basic survival of a group of strangers. It’s about both the immediacy of human connection and the devastation of despair when all hope is finally lost.

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