How many buttons can a single movie push? Flightplan, Hollywood’s latest airliner-as-pressure-cooker diversion, has its finger on some crucial ones: the panic of losing a child, the fear of going mad, the dread of being stuck on a transatlantic flight with a resourceful lunatic—hell, even the suspicion of rampant Hitchcock pilferage. But in the passage between its obscure first act and sloppy last one (that is, the portion detailed in the movie’s egregiously revealing trailer), Flightplan becomes more satisfying than the stock thriller–star vehicle it begins and ends as.
Hung on a plot familiar to anyone who’s seen The Lady Vanishes
(to say nothing of this summer’s Red Eye), Flightplan follows avionics engineer and recent widow Kyle Pratt (Jodie Foster) onto a plane she helped design, where her six-year-old daughter, Julia (Marlene Lawston), promptly disappears. Kyle goes nuts trying to find the kid, while an air marshal (Peter Sarsgaard, whose sloe-eyed gravity telegraphs too much here), the captain (Sean Bean), and a bevy of pouty attendants attempt to assist her and contain her increasing mania. The film collapses into an illogical mess once its central mystery—whether Julia was ever actually onboard—is solved and Foster is called upon to play action hero. Before that, her performance is shocking and raw, milking the screenplay’s uncomfortable echoes of her own life (“People do terrible things to little girls, sick things!”). Moreover, during the search for Julia, our sympathies and suspicions are bandied expertly from the desperate Kyle to the exasperated crew to a scapegoat Arab passenger. In what may be the first post–9-11 movie to use the phrase “post–9-11,” we’re starkly reminded that there’s nothing quite so fickle as paranoia, and that some people are never more persuasive than when they’re out of their minds.