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An Efficient, Above-Average Thriller

A taut, claustrophobic, and suspenseful thriller set aboard an international flight (the second in two months, preceded by Wes Craven's Red Eye, clearly indicating that the post-9-11 studio-imposed restriction against setting thrillers aboard airplanes has come and gone), Flightplan marks the Hollywood debut of German-born Robert Schwentke. More importantly, at least for Hollywood filmgoers, is the return of two-time Academy Award winner Jodie Foster to a leading role in a feature film (her first in several years), here as a grief-stricken widow and mother whose greatest fear, the disappearance of her young daughter, occurs during an international flight from Berlin to New York.

As Flightplan opens in an austere, wintry, semi-isolated Berlin, Kyle Pratt (Jodie Foster), a propulsion engineer (she designs airplane engines), newly widowed has decided to return to the United States with her six-year old daughter, Julia (Marlene Lawston), to bury her husband and restart her life. The first to board the airplane, Kyle and her daughter settle into an empty aisle, hoping to sleep through most of the transatlantic flight. Instead, Kyle awakens to discover Julia missing with passengers and crew suspicious of her claims (no one saw Kyle board the airplane with her daughter, nor saw Julia in her seat).

Kyle's increasingly desperate behavior turns the other passengers against her. Kyle eventually demands a systematic search of the entire airplane, including the cargo hold and the avionics room (the avionics room houses the sophisticated hardware and software that keeps the E-474 in the air). Oddly, Julia's name doesn't appear on the flight manifest and Julia's boarding pass has disappeared, leaving Kyle with little tangible evidence of her daughter's existence and a flight crew increasingly dubious of her claims.

The flight crew does offer some help (or the appearance of help), but prove to be obstacles to Kyle's anxious, frantic search. Kyle's antagonists include a semi-sympathetic, rumpled air marshal, Gene Carson (Peter Sarsgaard), Captain Rich (Sean Bean), caught in the middle between helping Kyle and ensuring the safety of the other passengers and crew, and two flight attendants, Fiona (Erica Christensen) and Stephanie (Kate Beahan) who circle around Kyle, offering platitudes and shows of sympathy. For good (or actually offensive) measure, the screenplay throws in two other potential antagonists, swarthy, accented Arabs (they claim to be businessmen).

Flightplan suffers from one major and several minor flaws. Most importantly, the storyline depends on a series of interconnected implausibilities, which may be credible individually, but when linked, fail the suspension-of-disbelief test. Without going into particulars, once the details of the kidnapping plot and its purpose are made known, too much rests on Kyle acting in a highly limited manner (not to mention, a storyline that hinges all too obviously on no one seeing Julia board the airplane). Some viewers will also find the suggestion that the Arab passengers are terrorists in disguise far more offensive and egregious (Kyle immediately suspects them of participating in the kidnapping plot). Obviously, screenwriters Peter A. Dowling and Billy Ray understand that the success of a thriller/mystery plot depends on misdirection, shifting audience sympathies and doubts from one potential suspect to another, but that's hardly an excuse for using Arab characters to play on the prejudices and stereotypes of Western audiences.

Audiences and critics may use the word "Hitchcockian" to describe Flightplan, due to the premise and the thriller aspects of the storyline. Indeed, Flightplan borrows its premise from Alfred Hitchcock's 1938 film, The Lady Vanishes set aboard an intercontinental train at the height of pre-war tensions with Germany. Comparisons aside, Flightplan succeeds primarily for two reasons: Schwentke's polished, tight direction, which never substitutes flashy visuals or edits and, of course, Jodie Foster.

The words "fiercely intelligent" are often used in describing Foster and her uncompromising performance style. Those words apply equally to her performance in Flightplan. While Foster may not be the warmest of actresses (she always seems to keep some part of herself in reserve), the role of Kyle Pratt complements Foster's talents perfectly, allowing her to naturally express a wide range of emotions and feelings. In effect, Foster becomes a surprisingly effective, convincing action heroine for which everyone can root.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars