Friday April 23, 1999
With the manic world of air traffic controllers as a backdrop, it's both fitting and unnerving that "Pushing Tin" has the feel of a near-miss. It's an intriguing film, one of the year's most interesting, but involving as much of it is, it leaves an unsatisfied taste when it's over.
Directed by Mike Newell and written by Glen Charles and Les Charles (based on a New York Times Magazine cover story by Darcy Frey), "Pushing Tin" is at its best in its opening sections. These unveil the fascinating and frightening subculture of controllers, men and women who pride themselves on having more lives in their hands on a single shift than a surgeon will in an entire career.
The work controllers do guiding planes to a safe landing is especially intense in the New York City area, where Tracon (Terminal Radar Approach Control) is responsible for three major and 47 lesser airports. That adds up to 7,000 aircraft a day in 150 square miles of air space--more planes closer together than anywhere on Earth. So no one argues when a controller says: "The universe tends toward chaos and we're the last line of defense."
In truth, pretty much no one argues with controllers no matter what they say. "Driven" is a kind word for these high-energy, extremely focused individuals who, whether getting airplanes to line up on approach with Rockettes-like precision or ordering complex take-out at the nearest diner, know exactly what they want and when they want it.
King of the hill at Tracon is Nick Falzone (John Cusack), familiarly known as "the Zone." Whether speaking fast and crisp to a gaggle of pilots or sweet-talking his wife, Connie (Cate Blanchett, who makes an unnervingly perfect transition from Elizabeth the queen to Long Island housewife), Falzone has the affect of someone who knows he can't afford to be wrong.
As long as "Pushing Tin" (the concept of moving planes briskly through the skies is called "pumping tin" in the original story) stays within that intense, hermetic world, it is hard to fault--though the candor of its look inside a control room can't help but increase fear of flying nationwide. But because this is a movie and not journalism, dramatic situations needed to be created and grafted onto the setting, and that's where the film starts to wander off-course.
What "Pushing Tin" comes up with is the specter of a new gun in town arriving out of the west, a lean, mean controlling machine named Russell Bell (Billy Bob Thornton at his most magnetic). Risk-addicted, seemingly nerveless, Russell shows up with his own chair, a feather on his head (he's part Choctaw, it turns out) and a reputation of being crazy enough to let a 747 fly over his head so he can experience the turbulence.
Bell's presence, not to mention that of his stunning young wife, Mary (a very effective Angelina Jolie), causes all kinds of ripples in the tight controller society. Falzone, not surprisingly, feels especially threatened by his reckless rival. "There's an aluminum shower in that guy's future," he says, darkly, competitive to the core.
Unfortunately, the macho rivalry between Falzone and Bell, which begins over their work and extends to their wives, is not any more diverting than most macho rivalries--and that's not much. The engaging ambience of the control room, the film's strongest point, gets lost in the morass of rivals facing off like sumo wrestlers intent on muscling each other off the floor.
While the usual problem with films that are not entirely successful is that some elements are smarter than others, that's not the case here. Rather "Pushing Tin" is hampered by a cultural clash between two different but conflicting kinds of smart.
The film's script, as befits something written by the two brothers who wrote and produced "Taxi" and co-created "Cheers," is sharp, wacky and decidedly offbeat. But good as it is, its humor, and its plotting, belong more to the world of the superficial than Mike Newell's direction.
Newell did make the irrepressible "Four Weddings and a Funeral," but mostly his gift is for the kind of intelligent, nuanced filmmaking and compelling acting that characterized films like "Dance With a Stranger" and "The Good Father" as well as parts of "Pushing Tin." But the script for "Tin," especially its flaky, sitcom resolution, is too insubstantial to support this more serious thrust of Newell's direction. A near-miss can have its moments, but it's a near-miss just the same.
Pushing Tin, 1999. R, for language and a scene of sexuality. Fox 2000 Pictures and Regency Enterprises present a Linson Films production, released by 20th Century Fox. Director Mike Newell. Producer Art Linson. Executive producers Alan Greenspan, Michael Flynn. Screenplay by Glen Charles and Les Charles, based upon the article by Darcy Frey. Cinematographer Gale Tattersall. Editor Jon Gregory. Costumes Marie-Sylvie Deveau. Music Anne Dudley. Production design Bruno Rubeo. Art director John Dondertman. Set decorator Steve Shewchuk. Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes. John Cusack as Nick Falzone. Billy Bob Thornton as Russell Bell. Cate Blanchett as Connie Falzone. Angelina Jolie as Mary Bell. Jake Weber as Barry Plotkin.