The things that go on in commercial-airline cockpits from takeoff to landing are largely a mystery to air travelers. The main appeal of Charlie Victor Romeo—pilot slang for “cockpit voice recorder”—is that it invites the average schmoe into that space to spy on a process that’s ordinarily off-limits. This anthology of six re-creations of actual plane crashes—with dialogue taken directly from black-box recordings—shows the unvarnished truth about the people whom passengers trust with their safety.
Maybe a little varnish would have been a good idea. Charlie Victor Romeo isn’t just based on the award-winning 1999 theatrical production of the same name, it’s essentially a filmed version of it. (The end credits reveal it was recorded in front of a live audience in August 2012.) The entire movie takes place on a spare cockpit set: just a couple of chairs, an instrument panel, and a back wall with a door. The camera never moves to simulate turbulence or sudden drops in altitude; only the actors’ dialogue and posture, along with some sound effects, indicate what’s going on outside. There are no exterior shots of the planes or passengers, because there are no exteriors or passengers.
The filmmakers’ only concession to cinema is their baffling decision to shoot Charlie Victor Romeo in 3-D—but in a movie with so little camera movement and so many close-ups inside such a small space with a mostly black background, there’s almost nothing for the format to enhance. If anything, it actually hurts the experience, because it brings out all the little details of the phony-looking set—a rickety console, the cheap-looking flight sticks—that might otherwise fade into the background.
Keeping the entire film inside the one minimal cockpit does ramp up the claustrophobia, and emphasizes the uncertainty inherent in air travel. Showing absolutely nothing outside the pilots’ bubble maintains that atmosphere of unpredictable dread—the idea that a seemingly innocuous bump or instrument reading can turn deadly at any moment is chilling for any frequent flyer to contemplate. But the choice to restrict Charlie Victor Romeo to the cockpit also makes it a surprisingly slack exercise, at least for laymen. Without special effects, cutaways, establishing shots, or really anything beyond the series of close-ups of these distressed crew members, viewers are left to try to make sense of the action through the dialogue, which is laden with impenetrable technical jargon. The small company of actors make convincing pilots, flight attendants, and air-traffic controllers, but their activities, tragic and brave though they may be, quickly grow monotonous.
It can be interesting to consider how different pilots react under similarly scary circumstances, and it’s not surprising to learn that Charlie Victor Romeo has been used by the Pentagon to train pilots; aviation experts who understand the lingo will surely glean a lot from the material. Ordinary viewers, however, will take away a lot less. The movie invites the audience into the cockpit, but it doesn’t give them a guide for the tour.