Flightplan, starring Jodie Foster as a mother who’s either lost her daughter or her mind during a flight from Berlin to New York, is a wonderful movie for about an hour — a moving, gripping rumination on loss, grief and sanity. It works primarily because of its star, whose delicate, fragile face fills the wide screen like its own special effect.
Foster, inexplicably relegated to stylized action films in recent years, possesses the remarkable ability to shatter on command; her eyes well up, her brow furrows and suddenly her calm visage roils like an idyllic shore battered by a storm surge. Indeed, when first we see Foster, as airplane engineer Kyle Pratt, sitting alone in an empty subway station, her eyes are moist and empty — the blank stare of the bereaved, looking at everything and seeing nothing except what isn’t there. A stranger appears from nowhere, and Kyle’s eyes light up. It’s her husband, come to fetch her, and she brightens like a summer morning.
Except Kyle’s husband isn’t really there at all: He’s a figment of her broken imagination, a ghost whose body lies in a Berlin morgue. But director Robert Schwentke and editor Thom Noble keep us guessing for a little while: Is Kyle suffering a psychotic break, or is she merely trying to hold on to old memories before they disappear? It’s a nifty trick that builds toward the bigger question asked in the movie’s second act: Has Kyle really lost her child on a luxury jetliner bound for Manhattan, or is her daughter, Julia (Marlene Lawston), also a manufactured memory, as the flight crew claims when it can’t find Julia on the passenger manifest?
For two acts, the movie, written by first-timer Peter Dowling and Shattered Glass writer-director Billy Ray, obsesses over that inquiry, and Flightplan plays like a top-notch psychological thriller. Everyone on the plane — the pilot (Sean Bean), the air marshal (Peter Sarsgaard), the flight attendants (including Erika Christensen as the emotionless rookie and Kate Beahan as the insensitive vet), the Middle Eastern men whom Kyle accuses of swiping Julia — swears they’ve never seen the girl.
But the first hour, which looks as beautiful as it plays, is nothing more than a shell game, and we’re absolute suckers for falling for it. What seemed so smart falls apart into a flaming heap of crap. To give away what happens would only serve the movie right; suffice it to say that once the movie stops being about Kyle’s frantic search for a girl who may or may not exist and focuses instead on another passenger, all the life is sucked from the movie. It becomes just another dumb thriller — the kind of movie that might as well star Wesley Snipes instead of someone as capable and compelling as the slumming-it Foster.
Flightplan manages to capture the feeling of flying: One second you’re soaring, and the next you’re hitting horrific turbulence that knocks you out of your seat and leaves you ready to throw up in a little paper bag.