Taking black box theater quite literally, Charlie Victor Romeo, its title derived from the aviation term for “cockpit voice recorder,” is adapted from the 1999 stage play by Robert Berger, Patrick Daniels, and Irving Gregory, the former two directing alongside Karlyn Michelson here. Using sparse production values, the film and play employ actual black-box recordings from six airplanes involved in accidents, the majority of them tragic in nature, in recreations that draw unforced tension through typically mundane routine. Although the situations and circumstances within each of the six vignettes in the film varies, each one is overwhelmed by the technical jargon spoken by the pilots and defined by monotony. In this regard, Charlie Victor Romeo shares a vague kinship with the work of Chantal Akerman, but because the outcomes are already known, the tension doesn’t come from the why or how, but more from the idea that one becomes so settled into habit that seemingly nothing is capable of interfering.
In what’s not so much an adaptation, but a translation, the filmmakers don’t indulge in any cinematic flourishes and merely film the play as it is. It becomes a shrewd display of extreme objectivity; even though some pilots engage in questionable flirting with crewmembers and others show a natural resistance to each other, the film treats every moment with the same restrained and steady hand, the actors never skewering their portrayals to allow blame or sentimentality. This stripped-down approach to dramatization is reflective of the film’s minimalist production values, with the entirety of each vignette taking place within a modestly decorated cockpit and surrounded by darkness. It’s enough to suggest the foreboding accidents that sneak up on the pilots, as if their flight is taking place more in a version of purgatory rather than reality, but that’s all of the artistic liberties the film takes in depicting the real tragedies.
It’s to the filmmakers’ credit that they present each and every story verbatim to the actual recordings, staging them in such a way as to allow individual opinion and eliminating extraneous context. There’s the possibility that this approach could leave the audience cold by keeping the action and characters at arm’s length (and heightened by the film’s insistence of capturing the tediousness of the job itself). But once the actual danger kicks in and the anxiety is stretched to a disquieting length, the film refreshingly stresses a sense of community through its delicate framing, that the friction and monotony that overpowered the scenes are ultimately secondary to the pilots’ true responsibilities.