BY STEVE ERICKSON | The play “Charlie Victor Romeo,” which is based on cockpit recorders from plane crashes, premiered in New York two years before 9/ 11. Directors Robert Berger, Patrick Daniels, and Karlyn Michelson have now adapted it into a 3D film. For all its one-set minimalism, I can’t help thinking that some of its cultural DNA goes back to 1970s disaster movies, so well parodied in “Airplane!”
As Brendan I. Koerner’s book “The Skies Belong To Us” reminded us recently, the ‘70s were a period when flight seemed newly dangerous. While the writers of “Charlie Victor Romeo” couldn’t have foreseen 9/ 11, the film version now plays to an audience that’s probably seen images of planes crashing into the World Trade Center dozens of times. The writing of disaster is quite different in 2014 than it was in 1999.
“Charlie Victor Romeo” has no real narrative, but it contains six scenes depicting the moments just before plane crashes. All show a pilot and co-pilot –– and, sometimes, flight attendants and other crew members –– doing their best to save the plane. The filmmakers made no attempt to open up the play, but they do offer intertitles with information about the design of the plane and how many people survived (or died in) the crash.
Unfortunately, the use of 3D never transcends gimmickry, although it’s not as dim and ugly as the worst recent Hollywood examples. Even so, “Charlie Victor Romeo” doesn’t approach the disorientation of Alfonoso Cuaron’s “Gravity.” Nor does it come close to the eerie expansions of space in Henry Selick’s animated “Coraline.” The main effect of 3D here comes in isolating actors’ faces in close-ups. Pushed away from the background, they seem to float –– a somewhat surreal effect –– but one wonders if that’s what the filmmakers were aiming to achieve.
“Charlie Victor Romeo” is an unclassifiable hybrid. After premiering at Sundance last year, it’s played documentary festivals as well as a sidebar of the 2013 New York Film Festival. It qualifies as a documentary because it was filmed during four 2012 performances of the play and edited down from there. As a result, the film is strikingly sparing in its choice of camera angles. It’s limited entirely to close-ups and medium shots, the latter usually depicting two or three people in the frame. These shots are taken from the same few angles, probably because the camera couldn’t easily be moved around. The film was shot on a single claustrophobic set representing an airplane cockpit. No attempt is made to dress up the set to change the look of each plane; the same fire extinguisher and clipboard hang in the background of every scene. Occasionally, we see extreme close-ups of the mouths of air traffic controllers speaking into microphones.
“Charlie Victor Romeo” avoids depicting the plane crashes through visual means. Given its limited budget, this was no doubt a practical decision, but it may also have been a refusal of spectacle. However, the filmmakers found an equally effective way of suggesting what it’s like to be in a plane crash: sound design. Jamie Mereness deserves a great deal of credit for his work on the film’s assortment of electronic beeps, which range from the ominously subtle to loud blasts of white noise signaling imminent disaster.
There’s no cynicism in “Charlie Victor Romeo.” No wonder it’s been embraced by the aviation industry and even the Pentagon. It’s a celebration of all-American heroism (speaking broadly –– two of the plane crashes depicted took place in Peru and Japan). The film it most evokes is Paul Greengrass’ wrenching “United 93.” Working in 2D, Greengrass made a film with cinematography and editing so jarring that it made some spectators physically ill. I suspect he was trying to make the audience feel in their gut some small portion of what the passengers on United 93 went through.
In comparison, “Charlie Victor Romeo” is an easier ride –– at least some of the crew and passengers depicted here survived. All the same, the filmmakers do get at something really terrifying, particularly in their second scene –– the moment when small talk segues into a realization that one might not survive the day. Gimmicky 3D or not, that’s no small feat.
CHARLIE VICTOR ROMEO | Directed by Robert Berger, Patrick Daniels, and Karlyn Michelson | Collective Unconscious/ 3-Legged Dog | Opens Jan. 29 | Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St. | filmforum.org