MRR Review: "Charlie Victor Romeo"

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A documentary derived entirely from 'Black Box' transcripts of six real-life major airline emergencies.
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Rating: NR
Length: 90 minutes
Release Date: January 21, 2013
Directed by: Robert Berger, Patrick Daniels, Karlyn Michelson
Genre: Documentary / Drama / History

"Charlie Victor Romeo" is a fascinating and unsettling film based on the 1999 play of the same name. The film is both an experimental drama and an informative documentary that offers a rare insight into what goes on in an airplane's cockpit. "Charlie Victor Romeo," or CVR, is the code used in the aviation world to describe the cockpit voice recorder. This film dramatizes the final few minutes of some aircraft disasters, showing the pilots as they try to regain control of their planes. The film was shot on a tight budget, using only basic sets, but it is still a gripping, insightful and moving drama as well as a strong reminder of the fact that the people in the cockpit are humans doing a very difficult job.

The skies are full of planes zipping across the country and even across the ocean. To many people, flying is a routine activity. It is easy to forget that flying involves stepping into a giant metal tube that hurtles through the sky at a speed in the hundreds of miles per hour. Human flight is a relatively new invention and a testament to how scientifically advanced society has become. Flying defies nature, and it's all too easy for things to go wrong. "Charlie Victor Romeo" is a stark reminder of this. It does the job so well that it has reportedly been employed as a training tool for both commercial airline pilots and those working for the government.

This documentary and drama takes the cockpit voice recordings of six different aircraft disasters and lets viewers watch and listen as the pilots, co-pilots and flight attendants do their jobs. To people who are not particularly interested in the mechanics of flight, some of the things that the pilots say may not sound particularly interesting, but as each disaster becomes more pressing, viewers notice that the chatter becomes more urgent. Occasionally a pilot may let his professional guard down for a moment, revealing his fears in passing comments to a flight attendant. Those startlingly touching human moments are what truly make this film.

"Charlie Victor Romeo" was shot in 3D, but the effects are subtle. The action, such as it is, takes place entirely in the cockpit. At no point are passengers seen or heard. However, as a viewer, the limited setting passes almost entirely unnoticed. The dialogue alone is enough to create a tense and gripping experience. At the end of each re-enactment, viewers are shown fatality statistics and details about what caused the crash. Those who are scared of flying may want to avoid the movie because it is a sobering reminder of how a bird strike or a simple maintenance error can end in disaster.

This dramatization is not for everyone. The off-broadway play translates decently to the small screen, but after a couple of sequences, it is easy to feel bored, especially if you came in to the film expecting suspense. The actors appear to still be performing as if they are in a play, and some of their performances are over-the top. For one or two sequences, this works well, but it begins to grate after the halfway point. Each reenactment is destined to end the same way, so viewers can be forgiven for not wanting to invest in the characters presented on the screen. It may seem heartless, but when six tragedies are presented back to back, it is only natural to become numb to them. Perhaps the directors would have been better off choosing fewer stories and offering greater insight into the humans behind each one instead of following the play literally.

"Charlie Victor Romeo" is not just another airline documentary or simple disaster thriller. It is an at-times tense, moving film and one that plays on its audience's greatest fears and strongest emotions. It uses the words of real people who know that they are just moments away from death. Not all of the speech used in the film comes from pilots; on one occasion a flight attendant can be heard telling passengers to hold tightly to their children. Those words, combined with fatality statistics popping up on the screen periodically, are chilling. "Charlie Victor Romeo" carefully walks the line between harnessing the shock-factor and being a respectful emotional drama, and its only crime is that it is perhaps a little too long. If you're comfortable with the idea that you are listening in on the final moments of these peoples' lives, then this is a moving experience, but it is not for everyone.

Rating: 3 out of 5