Blurring the lines between fact and fiction, “Charlie Victor Romeo” is a film unlike anything I have ever seen before. Based on the hit theater play, the movie charts the often times disastrous descents of six real airline crashes. Instead of trying to replicate the look and feel of such mid-air travesty, director/creators Robert Berger, Patrick Daniels, Karlyn Michelson, and Irving Gregory used actual black box transcripts as dialogue. With a minimalist cast, a single cockpit set, and a stunning 3D presentation, “Charlie Victor Romeo” is a hyper-realistic, claustrophobic thriller that looks at in flight horror through a lens we often never get to see. While I might be too afraid to book a flight anytime soon, I am nonetheless happy I was firmly planted on solid Earth to enjoy this film.
The stage production was created in 1999 by Robert Berger, Patrick Daniels and Irving Gregory, and premiered at Collective:Unconcious in New York City in 1999. Quickly winning critical acclaim by the New York Times, the performance went on to win two Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Unique Theatrical Experience and Outstanding Sound Design. It was only a matter of time before its creators found a collaborative partner in 3LD Arts & Technology Center to bring the play to cinemas.
Shot over three consecutive New York theater performances in 2012, the film version of “Charlie Victor Romeo” allows for a much more nuanced, intimate look at the captains and crew that make up the characters in the narrative. On the big screen, the motion picture is an unrelenting, psychological exploration that allows audiences to sit right alongside the pilots as they fight for their—and their passengers—lives.
While the story is deeply multifaceted, its structure is quite simple. We are first introduced to the date and location of each situation through bold-faced title cards. Then, using projector slides, flight crew statistics and accident maps, we are given a conceptual image of what that particular disaster’s background looks like. Finally, we meet the two actors that play the captain and co-captain of the flight.
Seven actors—Robert Berger, Patrick Daniels, Noel Dinneen, Irving Gregory, Debbie Troche, Nora Woolley, and Sam Zuckerman—are the only faces we see, and they are each responsible for handling multiple parts throughout the film. Functioning like a true team, these individual performance feed off of one another and adds to the overall intensity of the drama.
Whether the script calls for subtlety—a look of concern or a slight glimmer of hope—or overt emotion—a mental breakdown between pilot and co-pilot—the entire cast runs the total emotional spectrum and delivers impressive results throughout.
Whereas some theater to movie translations maintain a stagnant, fixed camera angle in an attempt to mimic the stage, “Charlie Victor Romeo’s” producers chose something all together different and unique. Using multiple cameras, and plenty of close-up angles, the audience is allowed to watch fluid action unfold on screen. Its 3D display also brings the audience as close to the calamity as possible.
Even though the 80-minute film is essentially six short movies fused together into one, there is no denying the dramatic sucker-punch each tiny vignette is able to pack. By thrusting the audience directly into the action without any unneeded exposition, “Charlie Victor Romeo” is a relentless experience. Maintaining the same talented actors throughout also adds to the immediacy of each micro-story. The result is 10-15 minute clips where the sense of impending doom and tragedy is almost palpable.
The audience goes into every story with the knowledge that its outcome isn’t going to be good, yet I, for one, found that this kept my eyes glued to the screen even more. At the end of each segment, projector cards display the casualties for each crash. As each explosion began to bleed into one another, I discovered that my anticipation to see just how deadly each crash ultimately was somehow elevated the terror I was experiencing even more.
It’s hard to appropriately categorize a movie like “Charlie Victor Romeo.” Part documentary, part theater performance, and even an unintended training video for future airplane pilots, the movie is deeply complex and visceral. What I can officially say for sure, however, is the fact that every real life pilot, co-pilot, and crew member gives their lives—literally—for their job. Each factual flight represented on screen is a testament to the commitment that is involved in a career in aviation. While I’ve never set foot in a cockpit before, I will definitely shake my pilot’s hand next time I fly out of LAX.
“Charlie Victor Romeo” premiered during the AFI Fest in Hollywood California on November 9th as part of the American Independents section of the festival. It was screened to a completely sold out crowd and will be shown again on Monday, November 11th at 4:15 PM in the Chinese 6 theaters. For tickets, head to afifest.afi.com.
AFI FEST presented by Audi is a celebration of global cinema and today’s Hollywood – a showcase for the best festival films of the year and an opportunity for master filmmakers and emerging artists to come together with audiences in the movie capital of the world. AFI FEST is the only festival of its stature that is free to the public.
By David Morris