Every fatal plane crash has the same, sad ending. But the minutes before are unique.
We think of these disasters as plane versus sky, but the 3-D docudrama Charlie Victor Romeo, which plays at the AFI Fest this week, takes us inside the cockpit to show us the almost mundane office politics of two co-workers in their airborne cubicles just trying to get home safely. Is the older pilot too confident? The younger one too deferential? And if — make that when — disaster hits, will their personal tensions make a bad problem worse?
"There's an interesting correlation between a hard situation and how you deal with each other," says Patrick Daniels, co-director of Charlie Victor Romeo with Robert Berger and Karlyn Michelson, about the real-life pilots in these situations who inspired the film. "When things are going wrong, there's no camera in their face. They basically forget that they're being recorded, and that makes it more realistic."
Daniels, Berger and their co-writer Irving Gregory chose six real-life crashes from more than 100 black-box recordings and presented them almost verbatim as a play, which later was taped by the Pentagon for pilot training.
Updating it into a 3-D plane-disaster flick might have you picturing a Roland Emmerich explosionganza, but the movie looks as if it were made for $250. The small ensemble shoehorned itself into a space that seems no bigger than a walk-in closet, and the entire production budget appears to have been spent on pilot costumes and a glowing desk with a few lights and switches.
Instead of special effects, the audience is focused on human behavior. We know what's coming — they don't.
Some of the flights, like the infamous United Airlines 232, which lost half of its passengers in a crash landing in Sioux City, Iowa, are mini-master classes in keeping composed. Others, like the agonizingly confused Aeroperú crash, are delivered at a scream. The shortest, a two-minute account of a deadly Air Force collision with a flock of Canadian geese, starts with the calm observation, "Lotta birds here."
"In the '50s, airplanes used to break because they weren't mechanically sound," Berger says. "As time passed, accidents that happened because of mechanical failure decreased dramatically, and human error became the thing that causes accidents more than anything else."
But he's not pointing fingers. He empathizes with these underpaid, overworked pilots, who go to work like everyone else under the added burden of life-or-death stakes.
Strikingly, in the buildup to a disaster, these men and women are focused on details that seem small only in retrospect: They're flirting, cracking jokes and fretting about flight delays while keeping a cautious eye on the cabin temperature and gas gauges. These pilots aren't just CNN casualties — they're people. If we were responsible for a failing flight deck, would we rage like the Aeroperú captain who yells, "The air data has gone to shit," or stay calm like the Japan Airlines co-pilot who steadily advises, "Do it by the book." And either way, would it really matter?
"You can definitely be beyond your depth and not be able to be aware that you're beyond your depth," Berger says. "When people see it, they're, like, 'There but for the grace of God go I.' "
Daniels adds, "Personally, I find it really fascinating that when the chips are down, people try. They can be trying the wrong thing, but they're still trying really hard."
That till-the-last-minute optimism makes Charlie Victor Romeo oddly uplifting. "A movie like Final Destination, the object is to make you terrified," Berger notes. His film, by contrast, "isn't calming, but fear isn't our objective."
Instead, after seeing his original play, his mother began to hand out thank-you cards to her airline crews.
Even after becoming mini experts on major disasters, the filmmakers aren't afraid to fly across the country to attend their screenings of Charlie Victor Romeo at AFI Fest. Insists Berger, "I feel so much safer and so much less nervous about flying than I ever have in my entire life."
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