By the end of Charlie Victor Romeo, almost 800 people will be dead, with hundreds more injured. But this methodical film, adapted from a theater piece first performed in 1999, doesn't actually show any of that carnage. It focuses tightly — very tightly — on a few people who are trying to prevent disaster.
Those people are at the controls of six airplanes that crashed between 1985 and 1996; their dialogue is taken from cockpit voice recorders, or CVRs — "charlie victor romeo" in the NATO phonetic alphabet.
Everything the principal actors say was uttered, in a crisis, by a real person, although the sometimes frantic chatter has been edited for clarity by authors Robert Berger, Patrick Daniels and Irving Gregory. It was they who first constructed the script for Collective: Unconscious, a New York theater group.
Berger and Daniels, joined by Karlyn Michelson, also directed the movie, using only one gambit to "open it up" for the big screen: They filmed in 3-D. I was unable to preview the movie in that format, but the technique reportedly adds to the film's claustrophobic intensity, which is already considerable.
Charlie Victor Romeo's first chapter takes it easy on viewers, and on passengers; no one dies when this flight's smug aviators clip some trees and miss the runway on an approach to a Connecticut airport. What's memorable about this misguided trip is the way a pilot informs passengers that "it might be a little choppy," while smirking privately that "they'll be throwing up."
None of the other flights lands that smoothly. Pilots scramble to deal with planes that have been disabled by bird strikes, lost their hydraulic systems or took to the air without any data system at all, thanks to a ground crew's sloppiness.
Routinely uneasy air travelers will probably not be reassured to learn that the last debacle happened in Peru.
Included among the incidents is the worst single-plane disaster in history, the 1985 crash of a Japan Airlines flight from Tokyo to Osaka. Multiple ground-control voices bark at the crew members as they search for a flat place to land the disabled airliner in that mountainous country, before finally crashing on a remote ridge.
There's a lot more to this story, which I remember well because I was in Japan at the time. Only four of 524 people on board survived; some passengers likely died on the ground after the Japanese government declined the American military's offer to provide medical assistance.
Such information is scrupulously excluded from Charlie Victor Romeo, which never leaves the cockpits of the six endangered aircraft. All that matters here is procedure, even under the most dangerous circumstances.
That the same performers keep returning in different roles, playing Peruvian and Japanese flyers as well as American ones, only adds to the sense of man as machine. Everything, and everyone, must run like clockwork. Yet no apparatus is foolproof.
Of course, the movie also shows frivolous moments before crisis strikes. One of the episodes begins in sex-comedy mode, with a flirtatious flight attendant and a pilot who follows her out of the cockpit. Then the wings ice up, and another white-knuckle ride begins.