Robert Berger, Patrick Daniels, and Karlyn Michelson, Charlie Victor Romeo, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 80 minutes.


IN 1965, Susan Sontag wrote of the perverse appeal of the science fiction film, which allows viewers to “participate in the fantasy of living through one’s own death.” In the entirely fact-based Charlie Victor Romeo, whose script consists solely of transcripts of black-box recordings from six aviation disasters, the audience member vicariously experiences the horror of the final minutes before catastrophe.

A collaboration between Collective: Unconscious, which originated the stage play of the same name in 1999, and 3LD Art & Technology Center, where the movie was shot (to little heightened effect) in 3-D in front of a live audience in August 2012, Charlie Victor Romeo is most compelling as a showcase for the incongruous effect of hearing jargon deployed in dire situations. The title itself—the military phonetic-alphabet rendering of CVR, an acronym for “cockpit voice recorder”—immediately suggests words as detached, bureaucratic code. Set in the narrow confines of the flight deck, with fleeting scenes of air-traffic controllers (rendered as extreme close-ups of mouths speaking impassively into microphones) interspersed, this filmed documentary theater unfolds as a torrent of words at once terrifyingly impenetrable and stupefyingly banal.

The crew on Charlie Victor Romeo’s six technically bedeviled flights—which occurred between 1985 and 1995, all but one on a commercial airline—are performed by six actors (four men, two women), who rotate playing pilot, copilot, flight attendant, flight engineer, etc. The tempo and duration of each scenario varies, yet all begin and end the same way: slides of the aircraft and its particulars, including make and model name and number of crew and passengers onboard as introduction; a concluding slide with the number of injuries and/or fatalities and the official cause of accident. This cluster of cold, hard data is matched by the impersonal-sounding questions, declarations, and commands uttered, in differing levels of volume and panic, by the crew as equipment horribly malfunctions: “You want flaps fifteen?,” “Will you hit the quick dump?,” “It’s fictitious! It’s fictitious!,” “We have no controllability at all,” “Hold it down, buddy, hold it down.”

The press materials for Charlie Victor Romeo note that “the aviation community embraced the production, and the Pentagon has used it for pilot training.” Yet though I don’t consider myself an aerophobe, CVR seems to suggest, intentionally or not, just how unnatural the whole enterprise of flying is—or, at the very least, how estranging and very rarely comforting the practices and rites of its personnel are. Witnessing CVR’s bizarre cockpit exchanges about averting calamity reminded me of the uneasy feeling I’ve had when, sitting in the back of a plane, I’ve overheard the downtime chitchat of flight attendants, conversations that have made me profoundly uneasy because of how strenuously they seem to be about nothing. It is this void of meaning that unpleasantly reminds me of the void I am traveling through at considerable altitude, puncturing my willing suspension of disbelief of my own midair suspension.

Charlie Victor Romeo plays at Film Forum in New York January 29–February 11.

Melissa Anderson