I happen to be very, very partial to expressionism.
—Robert Schwentke, commentary, Flightplan
“It’s a story that goes from broken to fixed, from confused to clear, from internal to external, if you will. And that was the guiding idea for pretty much everything that was decided on in the course of making the movie.” Director Robert Schwentke’s introduction as to his thinking about Flightplan is telling. As he explains for the DVD commentary, he imagines the film to trace a movement for suddenly widowed mother Kyle Pratt (the frankly magnificent Jodie Foster), as she grapples with her grief, self-doubt, and scary loss of her six-year-old daughter Julia (Marlene Lawson) during a transatlantic flight.
The “story” for Kyle does offer this sort of trajectory, but the very patness of Schwentke’s description (and the seeming equivalence it draws between “fixed” and “external”) speaks to the film’s lapse into formula, the ways that it allows action (in the least sophisticated sense of the word) to shore up the mourning mother’s sense of self. Certainly, this trajectory is reminiscent of Panic Room, Foster’s previous action-mom role, but the jumbo jet setting and the villain’s melodramatic excess are more trite than thrilling.
That said, the film begins brilliantly. Kyle appears first in a dream, walking snowy Berlin streets with her dead husband (John Benjamin Hickey), pauses briefly to wish he won’t go up to the rooftop from which he fell or jumped. In this gently fragmented opening, you come to understand the crucial point about Kyle: she’s been left. Cut to Kyle on a greenishly institutional subway platform, the camera slowly pushing in on her seated form, then, with a cut, pushes in on her face in close-up, taut, pale, anguished. At the morgue, she gazes on her husband’s body in a coffin, left alone by attendants so that she might make her uneasy peace.
Following, Kyle heads back to the States, with Julia and the body in tow. Julia’s curiosity about her new life and fears of her old one are rendered in deft, child-attentive strokes: she asks about the food in America and worries when she sees men on a platform de-icing an airplane’s wings, thinking they might fall. The plane in this moment becomes a focus, as Kyle explains specifics as to ice and wings and procedures; she’s a propulsion engineer, involved in the new airbus’ design. And so her deep comprehension of its inner workings is set up, to be useful in the plot to follow.
Methodically and delicately, the movie situates mother and daughter on the plane: Julia sits by her window, where she sees the coffin loaded and traces a soon-to-be-significant heart on the foggy window, Kyle puts on her best reassuring performance. Other passengers on the full flight fiddle and look vague, the flight attendants—including Fiona (Erika Christensen) and Stephanie (Kate Beahan)—strap themselves in for take off. Gargantuan, the plane rises, rattling and groaning occasionally.
The thriller part kicks in when Kyle wakes a couple of hours later to find that Julia is missing. Though she does her best to remain calm and approach crew members and Ken-doll-stiff Captain Rich (Sean Bean) with respect, she’s increasingly unnerved by their suggestions, first that the girl must be somewhere and she’s panicking needlessly, and next, that the girl doesn’t exist. Julia isn’t listed on the manifest and the gate back in Germany has no record of her boarding. Worse, no passengers or attendants recall seeing her. Advised that she’s overreacting, Kyle keeps her own focus clear: “The problem is not that I’m anxious,” she mutters to Fiona. “The problem is that my daughter’s missing and you can’t tell me where she is.”
Schwentke’s commentary is the DVD’s most compelling extra, though it includes as well helpful, if predictable documentaries, “The In-Flight Movie: The Making of Flightplan” and “Cabin Pressure: Designing the Aalto E-474.” He notes that the pre-9/11 script he read concerned terrorists on a commercial airliner headed to New York; after 9/11, he says, this “was not really a movie you could make.” While he concedes that you can now make a movie specifically about 9/11, “it’s a lot trickier to use it as a device, for a thriller.” And so he focused his film on “the idea that someone could actually vanish into thin air, as it were, form an airplane,” that is, a “single, contained environment.” That disappeared someone will be Julia, and other passengers and crewmembers will treat Kyle as if she’s lost her mind in her grief, none remembering the child being on the plane.
That said, Schwentke adds, the film also hints that this environment is “really just projection of an inner mental state.” As he drops this possibility, the film shows Kyle in dream or memory or hallucination, the space sterile, the men around her icy, her face shadowed in blue. These images, the director reveals, didn’t exist in the first screenplay, but added by writer Billy Ray when Foster was cast (instead of the original male lead, battling terrorists), a montage to show Kyle with her husband, then to locate her in a present with her daughter. That “present,” such as it is, soon fades off into what might be termed “plane time,” or, as Schwentke puts it, “When you’re on a plane, you’re out of time, in a sense, that you’re sort of half asleep, and you’re disconnected, which is exactly what [Kyle] feels anyway.”
This feeling, Schwentke observes, alludes to “tensions” following 9/11. A “genre film” is especially apt for such articulation: “If the trauma is too close to us and the trauma is too painful to be addressed head-on, you come to it from an angle. And you sort of dress it up and you make it about something else, but the fear, essentially, is the same. So, you’re allowed to live through it without having to deal with the emotional baggage of the real event.” While he allows that some of this evocation is unconscious, he also points out that the “scenes with the Arabs” (Michael Irby and Assaf Cohen)—where Kyle accuses Arab passengers of being involved with Julia’s disappearance, a kneejerkish, racist-seeming reaction—“are a direct reflection of the world we live in today.”
The contrast between Kyle’s multiple layers of loss and the flurry of life that goes on without her is briefly compelling. You’re aligned with Kyle’s anxiety, as she’s been your point of identification from frame one, but this also allows the possibility that she’s lost touch, as that first frame was her dream. Maybe she has made up her daughter, maybe, as conveniently available therapist (Greta Scacchi) suggests, Kyle has succumbed to overwhelming anguish and imagined Julia lived when really she died with her father.
The space is crucial to the plot, but it’s also a problem. As Schwentke says, “I am not a fan of the steadicam, because it’s a tool that I’m not quite sure about in terms of the syntax of filmmaking and also in terms of just the fact that you can’t really hold the horizon steady.” This means that the cinematographer had to come up with other ways to get through the space—the seats, the aisles, the generally constrictive logistics. The movie is increasingly immersed in the problems of space—the places Julia might be hiding, the limits of where Kyle is supposed to go (first class, coach, the cockpit, baggage, all restricted in various ways).
But the limits of space are mainly a distraction. The connections between Kyle’s internal state and the frightening space of the plane are made exacerbated when she meets Air Marshal Gene Carson (Peter Sarsgaard). Initially helpful, he starts niggling her in wholly inappropriate ways: “Your husband’s death is starting to make a lot more sense to me. A couple more hours and I’m ready to jump.” He stands behind her in several frames, breathing too hard or making mean faces, and you get the idea that he’s not quite the guy he’s pretending to be. But soon all the passengers begin to disbelieve her, treating her like a crazy lady. You know she’s not, but Foster’s performance makes you believe almost any direction Kyle takes, even for a millisecond.