This quote is printed on the screen during the opening minutes of Mike
Newell's Pushing Tin, a hectic film about the hectic lives of air
traffic controllers, starring John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton. The quote
is from an article called "Something's Got to Give" by Darcy Frey,
upon which Pushing Tin is based, and aptly conveys the legendary
pressure under which air traffic controllers work. For the first hour, the
film does this job, too it builds tension, tempers it with humor,
and then builds more tension. But the end of the movie is a shambles; Newell
loses the thread and never finds it, and the tie-it-up-with-a-bow screenplay,
by famous Cheers producers Glen and Les Charles, doesn't help matters.
Cusack plays Nick Falzone, an extremely charming and funny New York controller,
who is known to his friends simply as "Zone." He's cool as a cucumber
in the most pressure-filled situations; he can guide a dozen jumbo jets
safely in while singing old '50s tunes, and never miss a call. Then comes
Russell Bell (Thornton). Bell is a new controller just in from out West;
a quiet and mysterious character whom Nick can't quite pin down. But one
thing is clear: He's good at what he does. Soon after Russell starts his
job, he and Nick are in a fierce competition for how many planes they can
handle at once and how expediently they can guide them to the asphalt.
At an office picnic, Nick and his wife Connie (Kate Blanchett) meet Russell's
wife Mary (Angelina Jolie), whose aloof nature makes Russell look like the
life of the party. The pair impress everyone with their weirdness, but certainly
seem to have plenty of affection for each other. But, to Nick's annoyance,
all the women he talks to, including Connie, find Russell "interesting."
The next day, Nick runs into Mary at the supermarket; she is sobbing
uncontrollably. Russell has engaged in his frequent habit of disappearing
overnight, but she says that's not the reason she's crying. Thinking Mary
must be in an unhappy marriage, Nick takes her out to dinner to cheer her
up. You can guess what happens next. A few hours later they're in bed together,
both spent and guilty, regretting the results of too much wine. But when
Mary tells Russell about her experience with Nick, then the job pressure
really gets intense.
John Cusack, with excellent films like Grosse Pointe Blank and
Midnight in the Garden of Good
and Evil under his belt, has forged a solid reputation as an actor
who can handle serious situations with a touch of good-natured sarcasm.
This is plainly evident in his characterization of Nick; we see the journey
he makes from a clever wisecracker to a man truly afraid of losing his wife
and his position as top dog at the office. Moreover, Thornton maintains
his winning streak, following the excellent work he has done in titles like
Sling Blade, The Apostle, and A
Simple Plan. Blanchett, with a smaller role, offers her considerable
(Oscar-nominated) talent, and Jolie is mysterious, yet simple.
But where Pushing Tin goes wrong is in its attempt to "fix" all the characters' problems in the final reel. It would have been much more effective if director Newell had cut the last 20 minutes, allowing us to draw our own conclusions about the story's resolution; instead, he hammers away until all the final pegs are in place. The hard-edged, high-pressure feel is lost, and without it the film degenerates to a feel-good romance, weakening its overall effect. ***½
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