Takes You a Little Too Close to Home
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Okay, I admit it. I get a little annoyed when ten hours on a bus gives the complete stranger sitting beside me the idea that its all right to strike up a lengthy and personal conversation with me. It is true that the only thing I dread more than the requisite crying baby who haunts my every take off and landing, is the requisite three or four be-diapered infants whose disposable undergarments fill my train car, always my train car, with fumes only a mother can love. And, yes, while every modern, anti-prejudice bone in my body wants to deny it, my heart always beats just a little bit faster when I notice that my chosen form of travel, be it plane, train or bus, is also the chosen form of travel of a Muslim man. Call it post-9/11 trauma, call it life in the information age, call it just plain anti-social paranoia but dont read this and think to yourself Im nothing like that. And when you go to see Flightplan, do yourself a favour, and dont tell yourself that, had you been on that plane, you would have believed Jodie Foster. Because, for 99% of us, that would be a bald-faced lie.
Dan LKaf Zechut, the benefit of the doubt. Its an important principle but, lets face it, in a century when our every move can be watched, our every purchase documented, and our every journey a potential weapon, its a naive bit of counsel. Better to be suspicious of everyone trust no one and no one can betray you, right? So, when the crazy woman behind you, to the left of you, or three rows up, starts screaming that shes lost her daughter and the captain is saying that she has no daughter, who are you going to believe? Well, you cant trust the captain because, as Michael Moore has taken such pains to brainwash us into accepting, authority is always corrupt. However, trusting the woman means that its possible to lose a child when youre in a sealed airplane, traveling at a rather brisk pace through the lower atmosphere. Its a tough choice either youre in the middle of a counterintuitive terrorist conspiracy or that woman, suddenly sitting a little closer than youd like, must be insane. Its a real shame about that woman, isnt it?
Surprisingly enough, a woman imagining a child a whole child -- is easier to swallow than a kidnapping or a terrorist attack or a terrorist attack that involves a kidnapping, even for the post-9/11 traumatized. Especially for the post-9/11 traumatized. Its not simply a matter of deductive reasoning we need her to be insane. We like insanity. Its usually harmless and, more importantly, absolutely not contagious. (Unless of course you are one of those who views religious fanaticism as a form of insanity, in which case it is highly contagious and very much not harmless.) Think about it: Fosters characters insanity is such a mild pill to take, such a coveted little capsule, that we, the audience, have absolutely no problem accepting that the people on the plane would have absolutely no problem accepting that shes crazy. And while were at it well obediently chew on the fact that nobody on the plane saw her child. Halfway through the movie, well even begin to wonder whether we saw the kid (who did they say played her, anyway?). Maybe Foster is crazy.
Maybe were just scared. If it is possible to kidnap a child on an airplane, so successfully, then no child on the plane is safe. If that Arab, who looks exactly like an Arab, is a terrorist then no one on the plane is safe. If the captain is corrupt then no one on the plane is safe. If a flight attendant is corrupt then no one on the plane is safe. If the U.S. Marshal is corrupt then no one on the plane is safe. If a woman is delusional then everyone on the plane is annoyed, really annoyed, but everyone on the plane is safe.
Safety is such a precious commodity that well immediately sacrifice our liberty for it. At least until we get a little too uncomfortable then out come the protests and placards. But, while we fight on either side of liberty versus safety, in the back, while no one is looking, safety and liberty are working together to claim another victim. We dont see each other anymore. We dont notice quiet little girls who may or may not be figments of their mothers imaginations. We dont really notice the mothers either. When was the last time you bumped into someone and looked them in the eye instead of keeping your head down and mumbling a quick apology? When was the last time children did say hello to strangers?
Pirkei Avot defines Middat Sodom, the quintessential quality of Sodom that earned Gods disgust and warranted the citys eventual destruction, as the philosophy that whats mine is mine and whats yours is yours. (Perek 5, Mishna 13) Well, God may have wiped out Sodom but if that quality didnt exist today then neither would the movie Flightplan. Even other parents didnt seem to care about Fosters anxiety. At the very least, one would expect camaraderie among mothers when faced with that gravest of fears, a lost child. Not in the twenty-first century. And, after it seems to be a foregone conclusion that Foster is, in fact, psychologically disturbed, the only passenger who steps forward to offer assistance -- a shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen -- is a therapist who specializes in grief counselling. Is that what weve been reduced to as a social species? The only strangers we can turn to for comfort are the ones with degrees in comforting?
Last year, Crash discussed this very issue modern societys move away from acting like a society. Crash dealt with the question head-on, in an overtly philosophical manner. The film almost seemed to offer people a choice, a chance to change the future. I would consider it one of the most important recent films to come out of Hollywood, for that exact reason. Its bad enough to realize that the average person probably knows, and cares, more about whats happening to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie than all the other average people who share that average persons street. We dont want to think that were doomed to remain like that. Crash suggests that maybe it isnt too late to get to know the block, that maybe it isnt too late to look people in the eye again. Crash offers a bit of hope wrapped up in a powerful warning. Imagine you ignored that warning and kept going. Eventually youd hit Flightplan. Flightplan doesnt try to be a warning (even though it is); it is post-warning. It is exactly what happens when you keep reading the gossip column and ignoring the old lady that lives down the road. It is a world without the introspective soliloquy of Crash. It is the world after that voice is silenced. It is a scene governed by regulations instead of relating. It is the future of keeping your head down.
As a film, Flightplan exists on two levels. First, there is the story itself. Generally, you can trust Jodie Foster to choose intelligent scripts that stay away from inappropriate excess and Flightplan is no exception. Still, it is, at the end of it all, a movies movie. Its a smart thriller but it is still just a thriller; it cant hold a philosophical candle to Crash and, to tell you the truth, Id be a little surprised if it even found the match. When the credits roll you know who the good guy is and who the bad guy is (heres a clue: the former wins and the latter loses), you have no fear of tripping over any loose ends left dangling, and that last bit of adrenaline still pumping through your veins is a side effect of the breathtaking action, not artistry.
However, beneath the surface of the movie, is the crux of its power it takes for granted a state in the world that is appalling, very real and very often unnoticed. Simply by accepting it as realistic, Flightplan becomes a subtle criticism, whether it meant to or not. It doesnt give you a choice about the way the world could be; it builds an entire story, a story that has nothing explicitly to do with looking people in the face, on a given axiom that people just dont look each other in the face. Whats mine is mine. Whats yours is yours. Flightplan doesnt say a word about Middat Sodom but it subversively weaves the concept into every frame. It isnt a movie designed to make you think but, trust me, it will get you thinking. Youll start to wonder if you would have believed her, had you been on that plane. You begin to wonder if you too would have been so quick to think there was a Muslim terrorist, had your child gone missing. You begin to wonder who exactly you can trust, as you walk out of the theatre, carefully, so as not to touch any of the other people walking around you.
That night, youll stare at yourself in the mirror for a little bit longer than you usually do. Because, it will finally hit you that this lack of trust, embarrassingly representative of our time, really all goes back to how much you trust yourself. And, suddenly, youll wonder how much you do. Would you be able to tell if someone was crazy? Lying? Heartbroken? Would you be able to tell a terrorist from a friend? Maybe we dont look at each other anymore because it doesnt matter. We cant tell. Chances are, you couldnt even tell who was going to be the bad guy in Flightplan. Thats good; thats the mark of a great thriller. Suspense is what you want in a movie and Flightplan is every bit a movie. But what if it wasnt?