Mapping Contemporary Cinema

Flightplan, 2005

Production Companies: Touchstone Pictures, Imagine Entertainment

Distribution: Touchstone Entertainment

Director: Robert Schwentke

Producer: Brian Grazer

Screenplay: Peter A. Dowling, Billy Ray

Cinematographer: Florian Ballhaus

Editor: Thom Noble

Music: James Horner

Cast: Jodie Foster (Kyle Pratt), Peter Sarsgaard (Carson), Erika Christensen (Fiona), Sean Bean (Captain Rich), Kate Beahan (Stephanie), Marlene Lawston (Julia), Greta Scacchi (Therapist)

Running Time: 98 mins.

Classification: PG-13 for violence and some intense plot material

Box office gross: domestic $89.7m/worldwide $223.4m

Tagline: If someone took everything you live for, how far would you go to get it back? Continue reading


Plot: Berlin, the present. Aeronautics engineer, Kyle Pratt walks through Berlin at night with her husband. It transpires her husband has died and she is imagining his presence. Later, she puts her daughter Julia to bed and sees two suspicious people watching her from across the street. The next day Kyle and Julia board a plane to New York, a plane which Kyle helped design. Kyle’s husband’s coffin is placed in the hold. Kyle falls asleep and when she wakes up her daughter is gone. She searches for Julia, eventually persuading the stewards and Carson, an air marshal, to execute a full search of the plane, although the Captain forbids searching the cargo hold. When nothing is found Kyle becomes suspicious of two Arab passengers who she believes were watching her in Berlin. The Captain informs Kyle that there is no record of Julia boarding the plane, and that she died in Berlin, implying that Kyle is delusional. A therapist tries to help Kyle come to terms with the loss of her husband and, apparently, her daughter. Beginning to doubt herself, Kyle then discovers proof of her daughter’s existence. Using her knowledge of the plane, Kyle escapes observation and searches the cargo hold, unlocking her husband’s coffin. Carson arrests Kyle and puts her under supervision. Sneaking off, Carson plants a bomb (previously locked in the coffin) in the plane’s avionic system, where he has also placed a drugged but alive Julia: Carson and a stewardess are extorting money from the airline with Kyle as their fall-person. Kyle discovers this and, after the plane lands in Newfoundland and the passengers and crew have de-boarded, she attacks Carson. Locating her daughter and removing her to safety, she kills Carson by detonating the bomb. She is vindicated when the passengers and crew learn of Julia’s existence.

Film Note In the months following the 9/11 terrorist attacks many Hollywood studios removed images of the now-destroyed World Trade Centre from their films. The teaser trailer for Spider-Man, in which the hero weaves a web between the twin towers, was quickly pulled and neither the scene nor the towers feature in the final cut of the film (released in the summer of 2002). Due to the possibility that images of the towers would offend viewers they were also removed from Serendipity (2001) and Men In Black II (2002), disappearing “from these movies, just as they had from the landscape of Manhattan” (Prince 79). By contrast, New York-based director Spike Lee performed the opposite task with his drama 25th Hour (2002), inserting images of Ground Zero and a “9/11 mood” into the film in order to underline preexisting themes of injury, regret and culpability (Felperin 15).

Released in 2005, Flightplan is perhaps one of the most notable examples of mainstream American cinema trading in on 9/11 for dramatic purposes. Set for the most part on-board a transatlantic flight the film deals head-on with a widespread apprehension towards air travel. It also features the failure of a parent to successfully protect their child, a trope which David Holloway notes was a feature of much post-9/11 literature, writing: “contemporary anxieties about state activity [were embedded] in stories about the failures of family members to protect one another–particularly the failure of parents to protect children” (108). In his commentary on the Region One DVD release of the film, director Robert Schwentke speaks of how he saw the “tense baggage” that came with the story as an opportunity to “comment […] on the current rhetoric and the current climate in the world”. He goes on to suggest that the genre film is a good place to do this: “if the trauma is too close for us […] to be addressed directly and head-on, you come to it from an angle […] but the fear, essentially, is the same–you’re allowed to live through it without having to deal with all the emotional baggage of the event”. Flightplan certainly addresses the trauma of 9/11, but more than this it also offers an allegory of cultural responses, questioning through its own shifting tone the stability of these responses as well as their susceptibility to manipulation.

Dislocation and guilt Depicting the hijacking of a plane en route to New York, Flightplan consciously activates the nervousness felt by air passengers after the terrorist attacks: the film generates feelings of anxiety by suffusing both the airport and the forthcoming flight with foreboding. Part of this strategy is the setting of the opening section in Berlin. In an opening Kyle Pratt’s unsettled face is juxtaposed with a sign for the city’s most famous metro station, Alexanderplatz. This signposted location anchors the film and allows it to engage with the city’s history, and Germany’s historical consciousness of regret, national terrorism and violent societal partition. Kyle is subsequently seen walking the abandoned streets of the city by night, accompanied by her husband, who is later revealed to have died, his presence in these moments apparently a delusion. Kyle, it seems, is still struggling to process his recent suicide. In a similar manner to The Bourne Supremacy (2004), Berlin here is a place in which characters struggle to come to terms with a past that they have suppressed or denied. Jason Bourne’s trip to a hotel room in that film–in which he staged a murder/suicide of a politician and his wife–is haunted by the same ghost-images of the past as Kyle’s walk through the city. However, Bourne’s more clear-cut physiological amnesia (as opposed to Kyle’s psychological trauma) allows him to reclaim the events with relative ease, unpleasant though they are. The use of a German city might also call to mind the fact that many of the terrorists who hijacked planes in 2001 were previously based in that country, the so-called “Hamburg Cell”, itself the subject of a television docudrama in 2004.

Having provoked memories of historical tragedy and national trauma, and linking these to individual psychosis, the film then more explicitly connects this tone to 9/11 as it transpires Kyle and her daughter Julia will be flying from Berlin to New York, to Kyle’s “old room from when [she] was a kid” (as she tells Julia). In this way Kyle’s existence and emotional state is closely bound to New York, and the trip itself constitutes something of a journey back to the securities and certainties of childhood. This journey is prompted by a traumatic event, and involves the loss of Kyle’s daughter. It has already been indicated that the failure to protect children is something of a 9/11 trope; so too are trauma and loss. Marianna Torgovnick, an academic who lived near the World Trade Centre and experienced the attacks first-hand, states that “[n]o one outside the city, those inside agreed, could really understand how the city felt” (xviii). She also noted that she lost a laundry receipt after the attacks “in the way that New Yorkers just plain lost things for days and weeks to come”, (xvi). No one else in the film is able to understand how Kyle feels, so extensive has been the sudden and spectacular loss she has suffered, while she also “just plain loses” her daughter: in this way we are invited to read Kyle as a stand-in for New York, manifesting as she does many psychological tropes identified by academics and journalists following the attacks.

A deep foreboding concerning air travel is expressed in the film though the performance of Jodie Foster, the music of James Horner and the threatening mise-en-scène. The introduction of Julia involves a Zoetrope projecting airplane silhouettes and clouds onto her bedroom wall, the plane symbol now culturally loaded with connotations of danger, as seen in an entire sub-genre of art in the wake of the attacks, and the marketing of such films as United 93 (2005). The flight itself occurs at night, in an icy environment bathed with unsettling cold blue under-lighting. Even the trip to the gate through the crowded airport involves fear and panic. Though Kyle was involved in the creation of the “Aalto E-474” it still takes her the length of the film to discover where Julia has been hidden within it, indicating the newly eerily unknowability of air travel. In the DVD commentary, Schwentke explains that the design of the plane was purposefully altered from the blueprints of large airliners that had initially been used in pre-production due to a serious concern that Flightplan could be utilized as a “manual for terrorists”. The location of hatches and spaces normally hidden from passengers was changed after the crew received a visit from the FBI during pre-production, having sent blueprints of the fictional plane to a copy store that deemed them suspicious and contacted the authorities. These production details indicate the extent to which the themes of Flightplan overlap with contemporary concerns regarding terrorist attacks.

By creating this unrelentingly anxious tone, Flightplan generates just as much of a 9/11 mood as did 25th Hour. Rather than attempting a re-staging of the surprise of the attacks, as did dramatic reconstructions United 93 and World Trade Center (2006), or working to make-safe air travel by using it as an incidental backdrop for a straightforward thriller as did the similarly plotted Red Eye (2005), Flightplan instead considers the deeper cultural repercussions of the event. As with many other post-9/11 leads, Kyle is put into a position where her ability to protect her child is tested (as in Man on Fire (2004), War of the Worlds (2005) and Gone Baby Gone (2007)), but the setting of the film entirely on an airplane makes these cultural repercussions the focus of the film rather than incidental details. Further evoking the public reaction to 9/11, Flightplan depicts Kyle as partly to blame, as she “fell asleep”, which she “should never have done”, a lapse which leads to her manipulation by a corrupt air marshal. While Kyle is able to rescue her daughter and foil the air marshal, the ambiguities of the second half indicate the difficulty in reconciling different emotional and psychological responses to the attacks and moving past the initial, overwhelming shock that they produced.

Narrative incoherence In his contribution to the portmanteau film 9’11”01 (2002) Sean Penn created a moving drama in which the events of 9/11 lead a dishevelled elderly man to realize that the wife he has been muttering to in his gloomy apartment has died. The sun, revealed by the collapsing towers that shaded his apartment, casts light into his life, first leading him to wonder at the sudden blooming of flowers on his windowsill, then moving him to tears as he begins to come to terms with the death of his spouse (he too, it seems, had “fallen asleep”). This interpretation of 9/11 is far from commonplace, emphasizing the negative social impact of the towers (their shadows), and seeing their destruction as an opportunity for personal reflection and reassessment. Flightplan presents an awareness of the potential for this style of discourse in a crucial scene in which Kyle is spoken to by a therapist.

A new face in the film, never named, and filmed in tight close-ups which nearly match Kyle’s point-of-view, this therapist tries to convince her new patient that Julia is dead: “When something’s so painful, we choose to believe something else […] it feels better than the truth […] but it’s impossible to move on if we haven’t grieved.” As the old man’s suffering at the end of that segment in 9’11”01 is seen as an ultimately positive recognition of reality after time spent in a delusional state, so too Kyle is encouraged to stop chasing something that is no longer there: only by accepting the loss will she be able to come to terms with it.

This sentiment is undercut, however, by both Greta Scacchi’s portrayal of the therapist and the development of the plot in subsequent scenes. In his commentary, Schwentke acknowledges that both he and the actress are mistrustful of therapists and that this informed the portrayal of the character. Also, while the scene was written late in the process in order to question Kyle’s sanity more thoroughly, Jodie Foster’s star image prevents this from being entirely effective, as noted by Manohla Dargis when she states “Foster’s stardom, as well as the filmmaking, ensure that the audience most definitely is [on her side]”. Foster is restricted by the generic expectations that must be met in a $70m production, and so this suggestion that Kyle is genuinely disturbed fails to convince. In the same manner that Panic Room (2002) and The Brave One (2007) encode Foster as a woman able to access her emotions but also to become physically powerful and resourceful when necessary, so too Flightplan becomes structurally dependent on the infallibility of her character.

The suggestions of the therapist are subsequently debunked when she is revealed to be an unwitting part of a wider conspiracy. However, this does not necessarily negate her advocacy of the import of acceptance and mourning. Kyle has been presented as a woman in the grip of trauma, unable to accept her husband’s death, still imagining his presence in her life: the therapist’s words are pertinent in relation to Kyle’s ghostly resurrection of her spouse, her only error is to widen the net to include Julia. The staging of the scene inverts the proposed result of the therapy, Kyle coming to the opposite realization than intended, an effective dramatic device complicated by the accuracy of the words concerning her husband’s demise. The loss of Julia occurred because Kyle “fell asleep”–this scene is staged as an awakening, but it is an awake into escapism. The therapist preaches a gradual coming to terms; Kyle’s self-determined treatment requires sudden involvement in a situation she does not understand. Having earlier blamed herself for Julia’s disappearance, now Kyle refuses to be a victim and begins to lash out. In this way her actions reflect Susan Faludi’s primary critique in The Terror Dream of US culture and politics in the aftermath of 9/11: that it disengaged from the real world, whereas proper recovery would have required “sagacity and hard realism” (14). Kyle disengages from the real world as the film disengages from its previous anxious exhumation of 9/11-related trauma. Whilst the film depicts this as an awakening, the subsequent plot absurdities (identified and disliked by many reviewers) highlight the false nature of this awakening.

The disengagement Faludi speaks of involved “[a]dolescent fictions” and “[c]artoon declarations about ‘evil-doers’”, as well as unrealistic formulations of destroyable dictators and their WMD (Faludi 14). While much of Flightplan’s first half grapples with an uncertain reality and the debilitating effect of traumatic response, from the scene with the therapist onwards it drastically changes tone. Kyle’s supposed engagement with reality is an involvement in an adolescent fiction of villainous air marshals and ticking bombs, in which it is possible to kill those who would harm you and reclaim what was once lost. Her actions are even vindicated as an appropriate response when, in the close scenes, bureaucratic agencies and Arab civilians line up to offer her aid and apologies. The film seems on one level to praise escapism and action rather than acceptance and mourning, but its codification of villainy within an air marshal complicates a simple reading of the second half of the film as an endorsement of the actions of the administration of George W. Bush.

Abuse of power The events of 9/11 led to various changes in US law which remain controversial. The President was given legal authorization to pursue the terrorists with “all necessary means” and in October 2001 the Patriot Act was passed into law despite having been little seen by members of congress, such haste a consequence of the “emergency atmosphere of the period” (Prince 174). The act concerned many liberal groups and individuals, as it effectively abrogated constitutional liberties belonging to targeted persons and opened the door to the potential use of torture (illegal under Geneva Conventions) as an interrogation device (Prince 175). Many saw these developments and their consequences as an abuse of power. In depicting an air marshal–a quintessentially post-9/11 symbol of authority–as a corrupt presence manipulating a grieving individual through the abduction of her child, Flightplan further activates a set of discourses surrounding the events of 9/11 and their aftermath. “People will think what I tell them to think–that’s how authority works!”, says the air marshal (named Carson) towards the end of the film. This line echoes many critical accounts of the US media in the run-up to war, as it overwhelmingly “made the case for war” in Iraq and marginalized dissenting voices (Prince 179). While the film suggests that he is a “bad apple” within an otherwise sound power structure, Carson nevertheless reveals the dangers of empowering select individuals in times of crisis, whose sole control of information may lead to the temptation to abuse this for capitalistic gain. In an intriguing but unexplored visual composition Carson places explosives at the base of twinned fibre-optic towers beneath which Julia sleeps, suggesting his plot might be read through the lens of conspiracy theorists who believe the US government destroyed the Twin Towers for their own nefarious ends.

This abuse of authority is explicitly male-centred. Kyle confronts Carson’s stewardess accomplice Stephanie, appealing to feminine reason and emotion rather than male violence: “You really want to kill a little girl? He wouldn’t mind, I know that. The harder this gets, the more he seems to enjoy himself. But what about you? What about you? You want to kill my little girl?” The film cuts between point-of-view shots of Kyle and Stephanie and images of Carson brandishing a pistol. Kyle challenges both the accomplice and the audience to make an informed moral choice concerning the misuse of a position of authority and trust for financial gain, a provocation which here concerns Carson’s villainy but could be read allegorically as a challenge to the mainstream political acquiescence towards the Bush administration after 9/11. Carson’s authority is revealed as unsustainable (Stephanie abandons him) and his own strength diminishes thanks to a blow to the head from Kyle which makes him wince and fidget, Peter Sarsgaard’s performance stressing the character’s pain and frustration rather than his resolve. Carson’s abuse of his position of authority is shown to be neither moral nor enduring.

Unlike other post-9/11 films regarding the welfare and protection of children, Flightplan has a female protagonist, a difference which effects the way the film depicts violent revenge against the perpetrators. Torgovnick suggests that in the aftermath of 9/11, the imperative for a military response was not confined to those responsible, “the object of attack being, for some commentators, less important than the revenging act itself” (ix). As in Man on Fire, a child is thought dead but, after they are revealed to be alive, is soon rescued. The revenge unleashed spectacularly by ex-military man John Creasy (Denzel Washington) in that film has the explicit consent of the child’s mother. Kyle too acts violently, not only eviscerating Carson in a manner similar to Creasy’s killings, but also attacking Carson and his accomplice on prior occasions. These earlier attacks are markers of fierce motherly protective instincts; such an apologia is not available for Kyle’s detonation of Carson’s explosive, which is staged as a vengeful act rather than a necessary one. Kyle attempts to negotiate terrain between empowered femininity and masculine brutality. The hagiographic conclusion assures an audience she has been successful, but the inconsistency of this moment with previous demonstrations of her character (as well as the inconsistency of the final 20 minutes of the film–which play as action thriller–with the preceding psychological drama), suggest that such violent solutions are inherently unstable, as were America’s own military responses in the aftermath of 9/11.

The final scene of the film suggests the correctness of Kyle’s actions, but also acknowledges the ambiguity of her subsequent position. “Are we there yet” Julia asks, to which Kyle can only reply “almost”–the plane landed in Newfoundland and they are yet to reach New York. In a conversation in DeLillo’s 9/11 novel Falling Man, a character claims he does not recognize the US anymore, that since 9/11 there is “an empty space where America used to be” (193). In much the same vein, the thriller Spartan (2004) ends with the former US Special Operative who bucked a corrupt patriarchal system to save a kidnapped girl lamenting in London’s Trafalgar Square that he will never be able to go home again. Kyle herself may apparently be free from the weight of her husband’s death–his coffin nowhere to be seen–and the reprised image of Kyle’s face from the opening shot now features an expression of calmness not panic, but the background has changed from a locatable Berlin metro placard to a pile of anonymous luggage. Kyle is facing backwards in the final shot and this recalls DeLillo’s terrorist who faces backwards as the plane he has helped hijack speeds towards the Twin Towers. The future is uncertain in these post-9/11 narratives, the progress of history having been knocked off course by those events, leaving their protagonists in an indeterminate limbo.

In this way, Flightplan suggests it is aware of the desire for cinematic escapism, even as it instead offers no escape. As Faludi states in relation to another piece of post-9/11 fiction, Flighplan can be seen to “exhume the trauma” of that day for an audience and confront us with the absurdity of an escapist solution to the problems and consequences of the attacks (164). This ideological imprecision allows a viewer to see the multiplicity of cultural responses to the events of September 11th 2001, as well as the difficulties and risks involved in committing to any particular one.


Dargis, Manohla. “Hunting for a child no-one believes is there”. 23 Sept. 2005. Web. 16 June 2011.

DeLillo, Don. Falling Man. London: Scribner, 2007. Print.

Faludi, Susan. The Terror Dream. London: Atlantic, 2007. Print.

Felperin, Leslie. “Interview: Spike Lee.” Sight and Sound, 13.4 (2003): 15. Print.

Holloway, David. 9/11 and the War on Terror. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008. Print.

Prince, Stephen. Firestorm: American Film in the Age of Terrorism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. Print.

Marianna Torgovnick. The War Complex. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. Print.

Written by Nick Jones (2010); edited by Guy Westwell (2011), Queen Mary, University of London

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Copyright © 2011 Nick Jones/Mapping Contemporary Cinema

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