Flightplan is a taut thriller that successfully exploits the paranoia created by 9/11 but ultimately is more wind than substance. Starring Academy Award Winner Jodie Foster (“Queen of the Anxious Look”), Flightplan explores what happens to a woman when her daughter disappears on an airborne airliner. Where is the girl? Did she even exist? Is the woman going crazy or is there some kind of conspiracy? Finding the answer to these questions is involving, if not familiar. That is until the story jettison’s the storyform mid-flight and goes in for a forced landing. A film that should have had the substance of a Silence of the Lambs is sacrificed for a moderately surprising “gotcha” story twist.
At the heart of Flightplan is a relatively solid storyform.
Bad guy Air Marshal Gene Carson and friends have worked out a plan to extort $50M from an airline. Kyle Pratt’s husband is murdered because they need to sneak explosives undetected aboard a plane in a casket. Since Kyle is an engineer on the plane in question, she is uniquely suited to be take the fall for the event (MC Domain of Situation). It is the air marshal’s plan to kidnap Kyle’s daughter mid-flight, make it look as though the daughter was never there and Kyle is crazy, then make it appear that she is extorting the airline (OS Domain of Manipulation; OS Problem of Perception).
Kyle Pratt (Main Character) is a recent widow who seems unable to let go (Main Character Concern of The Past). Inexplicably, her husband fell from a building which she has a hard time resolving (MC Issue of Fate v. Destiny). When her daughter mysteriously disappears mid-flight (Story Driver of Action), Kyle’s wild ideas as to who is responsible and why it happened creates havoc for her and others (MC Problem of Thought). She insists on a step-by-step search of the entire plane to find her daughter (MC Problem Solving Style of Logical/Linear).
Gene Carson (Influence Character) is a man on a mission (IC Throughline of Fixed Attitude). He impacts Kyle by reinforcing information about Kyle’s husband’s manner of death (IC Issue of Truth v. Falsehood). He also plants information that contradicts Kyle’s claims of her daughter’s presence and reinforces the appearance of her instability (IC Problem of Perception). Gene is uniquely suited to undermine Kyle’s effectiveness by raising suspicions about Kyle’s credibility (IC Unique Ability of Suspicion), but increasingly is undermined by his growing smugness and self-importance (IC Critical Flaw of Sense of Self).
Responding to her daughter’s disappearance, Kyle and the crew try to figure out what is going on and how to handle it (OS Concern of Developing a Plan). There are only a limited number of explanations for the child’s disappearance (Story Limit of Optionlock). The child either has to be on the plane (OS Issue of Situation) or her mother’s recent loss might be enough to explain it (OS Counterpoint of Circumstances). Kyle fights against the regulations (OS Symptom of Order; MC Symptom of Order) and creates havoc when he dashes to see the captain, messes with the lights and oxygen, etc. (OS Response of Chaos; MC Response of Chaos). Gene continues to manipulate Kyle, the crew, and the captain so they’ll behave how he wants them to according to his plans (OS Concern of Developing a Plan).
Gene and Kyle’s relationship is one of a cat playing with a mouse (RS Domain of Activity). Gene knows fully well what is going on but works to keep Kyle in the dark (RS Concern of Understanding). Gene pretends to be concerned with Kyle’s interests but really isn’t (RS Problem of Perception). Only when Kyle notices inconsistent bits of beaviour does she begin to understand Gene might be the one behind her daughter’s kidnapping (RS Concern of Understanding; RS Catalyst of Interpretation; RS Solution of Actuality).
Ultimately, Kyle’s persistence (MC Resolve of Steadfast) leads to her finding her daughter and thwarting the conspiracy (Story Outcome of Failure). She blows up Gene with his own bombs (Story Driver of Action) and walks off the plane vindicated by the presence of her daughter (Story Judgment of Good; Personal Triumph story).
That’s all well and good, but that’s not quite how the audience experiences the film. As a thriller, one expects story twists and surprise reveals. The big reveal in Flightplan occurs about three-quarters of the way through the story when we find out Gene is the bad guy. He’s the one responsible for all of Kyle’s misery: her husband’s death, her daughter’s disappearance, and even her planned execution. Unfortunately, that is the point we lose Gene’s effectiveness as an Influence Character.
The effect is not total—Kyle is not aware of Gene’s true actions—but his role as extortionist eclipses his function as Influence Character and impairs his place in the RS throughline. The proof of this is in the lack of an IC Resolve. At the end he is neither a Steadfast IC nor a Change IC (as he should be to counterpoint Kyle’s steadfastness). He is only working in his capacity as extortionist/bad guy. There's a nod to having a "change" character when Kyle convinces airline flight attendant and Gene cohort, Stephanie, to drop out of the plan, but Stephanie's not the IC so the effect is minimal on the story's argument.
What is the effect of losing the Influence Character toward the end of the story? Considerable. The Main Character’s Growth is stunted which undermines the MC Resolve. The heart of the story found in the Relationship Story throughline is incomplete. The alternative paradigm offered by the Influence Character slows down and sputters out. Losing the Influence Character mid-story changes the story from a grand argument into a flat “so this is what happened” narrative. It doesn’t destroy the meaning, power, and essence of the story; it merely marginalizes and dampens it. What should have been a thrilling life-affirming adventure is reduced to an anxiety-charged rollercoaster ride.
A Word about the storyform: Story analysis is, at best, an informed guess at the author's intent. It is often difficult to find the storyform for mysteries and thrillers because much of the story looks like something it isn't. It's even more difficult when the storyform is incomplete (no IC Resolve). With Flightplan, my initial choice for Overall Story domain was Activity since it seems, essentially, a heist film (see Flightplan's analysis page for both storyforms). Eventually I chose the Manipulation domain for the OS Throughline for two reasons: everyone in the story is either manipulating or being manipulated, and more of the story points fit.