Charlie Victor Romeo conjures a delicate balance of anxiety and inevitability amid terrifying chaos.
"Okay, all right." "Shit." "Mellow it out." "Okay. Okay. Oh shit." The scramble of words and the close shots of red faces during this moment in Charlie Victor Romeo are simultaneously riveting and hard to watch. It's a moment that is repeated several times during the movie, which is based on transcripts of black box cockpit recordings from planes that crashed. The scenes' endings are similar, as the dialogue turns urgent, alarms sound, and expressions contort. And yet, each of the exchanges among the cockpit crewmembers is variously chilling, as it becomes clearer and clearer to them what you know is coming.
Premiering in 3D at the Film Forum on 29 January, the film features a group of performers who play multiple parts, differently organized in each reenactment. Each scene begins similarly, as the camera slowly pulls out from the piloting team seated at an instrument panel. The set is spare, the lighting dark, recalling the film's origins as a stage play in 1999. They share a couple of minutes of small talk at take off, or in mid air, until a catastrophe occurs and the crew contends with crisis.
In one case, USAF Yukla 27 in Alaska, September 1995, this catastrophe is a flock of birds. This scene is introduced by the sound of geese over a black screen, an eerie framing of the inevitable, and when the crew begins describing what's happened to the ground crew ("We've lost number two engine, we ran into some birds"), it's not yet clear how much the pilots comprehend their immediate future. They all go down endeavoring to stop the crash, their efforts stopped short by a loud sound and a black screen, then a title card listing the number of fatalities.
The effect is remarkable, as you know part of the story as the characters know another part of it, what might be done, what certain language or circumstances might mean. Such discrete bits of understanding raise questions and anticipations, yours and, you're guessing, the crewmembers'. The exchanges are at once cryptic and plain, describing what's happening, suggesting the strange genius and frightening mystery of how planes work. On Aeroperú Flight 603, which took off from Lima, Peru in 1996, the crash is caused by duct tape left accidentally on static ports by a maintenance crew: the plane's computer system is unable to get the information necessary to fly it, so that most of this scene consists of the crew's shock at what they see on their panels and what they cannot know: how fast are they going? at what angle are they ascending? where is the ground?
The crew of Aeroperú Flight 603 faces this emergency with admirable pragmatism, comprehending the dire loss of control but also trying to find a way around it, seeking location coordinates or "landing" options from the team on the ground ("We have problems here for reading instruments, you will have to help us here"). Their language turns poetic, abstract, as if written by Samuel Beckett or maybe Mamet. "We have speed." "What power do we have now?" "It's fictitious, it's fictitious."
As this team works feverishly to find where they are, how fast they're going, in a cockpit that isolates them by definition. While you might admire their calm and their skill and their ingenuity in situations they've never practiced, you're also horrified by the very nature of their situations, how much they rely on constructs, on ideas of space and time rendered on monitors, managed by levers and buttons. On one level, everything they're doing is fictitious, even as it is utterly material. They turn left, they pull on a throttle, they do their best to disengage autopilot, they barely look at each other, completely absorbed by the life and death situation in front of them. "Are we descending now?" asks a crew member aboard Aeroperú Flight 603. They work to know, they must know, they can't know.
Directed by Robert Berger, Patrick Daniels, and Karlyn Michelson, the film conjures a delicate balance of anxiety and inevitability, the repeated staging of each scene and the same performers in varying roles offering pattern amid the chaos. "Flap up, flap up," calls out one crew member. " "Push hard, push hard," says another. As you hear these directions, you're pressed to imagine what someone might have thought or how she must have felt in this moment. For, as much as Charlie Victor Romeo constructs story, as much as it sketches beginnings, middles, and ends for each flight, it also conveys the unknown. "Should we free-fall?", asks one crew member. Who can know?