Cinema Signal:

On Writing
by Stephen King

. "Flightplan"

The premise for this mystery thriller in the skies is unique. The execution of it demonstrates good production craftsmanship by all aboard. The quarrels that some people have had mostly concern its 3rd act resolution, which I understand as less than satisfactory to this critical audience. Until someone comes up with a suggestion for a better way it might have satisfied the premise, I'll go with it. It's a taut trip, with unflagging suspense, a full plate of thriller goodies, and a high level performance by an actress who doesn't choose to make very many movies.

The reason for the flight is a sad one. Kyle (Jodie Foster), a propulsion engineer who works on engines for airplanes, lost her husband in a fall from their apartment building in Berlin where he worked. She and 6-year old daughter Julia (Marlene Lawston) are flying his body back home for burial. The night before their departure, they are both spooked, she by a conviction that middle-eastern men seem to be spying on her from a building across the street and Fiona from fears brought on by her father's death. Kyle has all she can do to convince her daughter that she'll be safe on the airplane. Mom's an expert, isn't she? She knows the plane inside and out.

In an effort to foreshadow what's to come, Julia, who is supposed to be insecure, wanders off from mom in the terminal, a cheap fright moment that sends Kyle into hysterics. From then on she'll be in skin contact with her daughter every step of the way.

And so she is. They're first into the plane cabin and watch it slowly fill prior to takeoff. There is the family with two brat kids that continually have to be shut up and kept in their place by their parents. There's the guy across the aisle (Peter Sarsgaard) whose interest seems to be in the bodies of every female that saunters by. There is the group of arabs at the front of the cabin who give everyone the jitters. And, there is the efficient crew of stewardesses. Meanwhile, Kyle attends to Julia's every need. In flight, they fall asleep, still in skin contact. But, when Kyle awakens, Julia's gone. Gone where?

Kyle keeps her anxiety in check, convinced that Julia has simply done again what she did in the terminal -- even after having promised she never would. The lech across the aisle introduces himself as Carson and softly assures her that he hasn't seen the girl. From here on it's a dizzying search in which Kyle can't find Julia's backpack that she herself stowed in the overhead rack, or anything else that could prove that her daughter has ever been aboard.

She raises a stir among the crew by insisting that they perform a thorough search of the areas of the plane that are off limits to passengers, including the baggage section. Her fright and her demands bring the level-headed Captain Rich (Sean Bean) into the drama. Following protocol in such instances, he directs the crew to perform the search, which is not done in enough detail or dedication to please the increasingly desperate Kyle. It's her daughter, after all!

But when the search shows nothing, and when the flight manifest shows no Julia aboard, and no one on the crew or in the passenger cabin remembers seeing Julia, the disappeance begins to look like the delusions of a woman in grief. It's even suggested that Julia died with her father and that Kyle is in a state of denial.

But Kyle's not someone who responds well to patronization or therapy. She controls her hysteria and switches to defense mode. Creating diversions, she uses her intimate familiarity with every hidden hatch and entrance on the plane and conducts her own search. Before long, while inconvenienced by her innovative tactics, the passengers who were so disgusted by this woman's belligerence applaud her determination and initiative.

Jodie Foster does the frantic head of the family under great stress and credible threat very well, as she so superbly demonstrated in an earlier state of panic ("Panic Room").

Sean Bean is admirably charismatic as a fair and patient arbiter of a difficult situation. Peter Sarsgaard accomplishes his second role in a setting of terror (after "The Skeleton Key") with lots more dimension than that of a simple lecher. Director Robert Schwentke's control over the tensions of Peter A. Dowling's and Billy Ray's demanding screenplay is completely pro.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Jodie Foster as a mother with a disappeared child
Poking into the areas she knows better than almost anybody.
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