Best Movies for Bumps at 39,000′

About two years ago I suddenly developed anxiousness when flying.  I don’t think it’s true aviophobia–just periodic panic mid-flight. The first panic attack took me quite by surprise.  After all those years of sitting back with snacks and a book, I was suddenly overwhelmingly afraid.  Sweat beaded on my face, my legs became restless, and my heart raced. I wanted out of that plane, and I was doing everything not to take off the door and jump. Nothing seemed to help.  Deep breathing, listening to podcasts, putting my head between my knees –no luck.  But then, as I tried to focus on something–ANYTHING–other than my fear, I scrolled through the free movies that the flight provided.  That is when I discovered the right combination to keep me focused and fear free.  Now, I rent movies for my portable devices and have them rolling on every flight. I aim for movies that are$2.99 rentals because I often watch more than one per leg of my flight.

Criteria #1: The movie needs to be compelling.  

While most “best to watch” lists suggest that in-flight movies not require all of your attention, I actually need one that requires me to keep my attention on the screen and off of that litany of anxiety-inducing thoughts. I can always use the back button if I get lost or fall asleep.

All the President’s Men (1976)

all-the-presidents-men-redford-hoffmanSpoiler Alert: It doesn’t end well for the president.

My first pick  is the one that led me to discover the panacea for flight fear, and this movie is worth a rewatch. The Watergate scandal was a gamechanger for politics and journalism–and is very appropriate given today’s media climate.  This isn’t a high action film, but it is well-paced and well-acted. Roger Ebert once complained that the details overwhelm the narrative, but this is what makes it appealing to me.  It’s that “sea of names, dates, telephone numbers, coincidences, lucky breaks, false leads, dogged footwork, denials, evasions, and sometimes even the truth” that kept me rivoted to the screen and not pondering the seal on the emergency door.

Other movies in this genre:

Spotlight (2015) The Boston Globe‘s role in uncovering the massive scandal of child molestation and cover-up within the local Catholic Archdiocese

Noble (2014) Christina Noble overcomes the harsh difficulties of her childhood in Ireland to discover her destiny on the streets of Saigon. A true story.

Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) a lighter interpretation of the Reagan-era support of Afghan “freedom fighters”

Goodnight and Goodluck (2005) 1950s America and the conflict between Edward R. Murrow and Senator Joseph McCarthy

Criteria #2: The movie needs to avoid extended car chases or long fight scenes.

There it is again: Keep my attention.  A chase or fight that lasts more than a couple of minutes bores me.  I visited the snack bar and then napped through the 45-minute ice fight in Hobbit 3. And while I have enjoyed most of the Marvel and DC Comics offerings, the battle scenes can run a bit long and have me looking around the theater. The last thing I want is to be looking around the plane and noticing how tightly packed our seats are. Therefore, while action–with or without adventure–is great on the ground, it needs to be quick and to the point when in the air.  It’s time to pull out those light-hearted adventure series that have become staples of the summer.


Oceans 11 or 12 or 13 (2001, 2004, 2007)  just as quick and funny as you remember

Focus (2015) Will Smith is a con artist with all the moves –almost.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) Harrison Ford before the earring

Criteria #3: Limit the scares.

Watching a horror movie can cause a spike in adrenaline and cortisol levels making a person more susceptible to anxiety attacks. Leave Return of the Living Dead 3 for a cozy night at home.  It’s been released on blu-ray and includes special features, including audio commentary and interviews with the screenwriter and director.

Criteria #4: The right sort of humor helps.

Comedy decreases stress hormones and reduces anxiety.  A mix of slapstick and one liners are a good relaxer.  A rom-com helps as a second movie in a long flight or a second leg.


It Happened One Night (1934) If you are able to find this, do.  Fast paced and funny. Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert are a great introduction to the foundation of romantic comedy.

The Proposal (2009) Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds with Betty White –lots of one liners and sweet without too much sap

How to Lose a Man in 10 Days (2003) Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey make bets on finding and losing love.

Miss Congeniality (2000) Another Sandra Bullock, this time she’s undercover in a beauty pageant with Benjamin Bratt.

Criteria #5: When in doubt, go for the Good Feels.

It’s always good to have a bit of balance.  Since my average flight is about 4 hours long, one movie isn’t enough.  After the intensity of a journalistic drama or a fast-paced action/adventure, there is a need for cooling down.  But here again, the good feels have to be middle of the road “good.”  Tearjerkers are OUT. While overcoming obstacles makes for excellent cinema on the ground, that emotionally-draining sort of movie heightens that cortisol that I mentioned.  So a middle-of-the-road movie–dare I say “sweet”?–may be in order.


Chef (2014)  A chef, a food truck, a father and son story,  no tears –but I guarantee that you’ll want a Cubano sandwich when you land.

Other movies with the “feels”:

A Walk in the Woods (2015) Robert Redford as author Bill Bryson on the Appalachian Trail

I’ll See You in My Dreams (2015) Blythe Danner finds love with Sam Elliot.

Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) Robin Williams being Robin Williams

What Not to Watch:

The Grey (2011) Spoiler: plane crash, stranded in Alaska, hunted by wolves

Gravity (2013) Spoiler: shuttle destroyed, stranded in space

Alive (1993) Spoiler: plane crash, cannibalism.

Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) Spoiler: There’s someone on the wing.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2105) Spoiler: It’s Tom Cruise on the wing.

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