Director : Mike Newell
Screenplay : Glen Charles & Les Charles (based on the article "Something's Got to Give" by Darcy Frey)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : John Cusack (Nick Falzone), Billy Bob Thornton (Russell Bell), Cate Blanchett (Connie Falzone), Angelina Jolie (Mary Bell), Jake Weber (Barry Plotkin), Kurt Fuller (Ed Clabes), Vicki Lewis (Tina Leary), Matt Ross (Ron Hewitt)
We are told near the beginning of Pushing Tin that air traffic controllers take more lives into their hands in one shift than surgeons take in their entire careers. No wonder it has the highest rates of clinical depression and alcoholism of any profession.
In Mike Newell's dramedy, Pushing Tin, the hectic life of the controllers at the New York Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) is used as the backdrop for a sometimes funny, sometimes moving, but often uninvolving and unfocused story about two men who feel the constant need to one-up each other. The two men are Nick Falzone (John Cusack), a veteran New York air traffic controller who prides himself on being known as "The Zone," the best there is, and Russell Bell (Billy Bob Thornton), the new guy from Arizona who is rumored to be "the best air traffic controller ever." That sounds a bit odd--"the best air traffic controller ever"--but once you watch a few minutes of these highly competitive, testosterone-driven controllers working at the top of their game, you quickly get a sense of how serious it is.
The controllers in Pushing Tin are responsible for all the planes coming and going out of Newark, LaGuardia, and Kennedy airports, all of which are less than 20 miles apart. Newell does a fine job of getting his camera inside the heads of these characters, showing what they go through when trying to keep dozens of planes from running into each other in finite air space. At times, it seems like playing an elaborate life-or-death video game, and Newell uses three-dimensional graphics to take us inside the radar screen. Kudos should be given to Newell and his actors for conveying the adrenaline-rushing excitement of the job and making it understandable to a lay person.
However, despite all the excitement in those opening minutes, the movie soon bogs down into a silly romantic story about Nick having a one-night affair with Russell's voluptuous, alcoholic wife, Mary (Angelina Jolie), and his ever-increasing paranoia that Russell will repay the deed with Nick's wife, Connie (Cate Blanchett). The movie then bogs down further by having Nick's life finally come apart at the seams, thus forcing him to seek out Russell to help him get back on his feet.
The scene at the end of the film where Nick and Russell--competitive at best, enemies at worst--have to come together to help Nick out his slump is terribly written and wholly unconvincing. It's as if the screenplay by TV vets Glen Charles and Les Charles (co-creators of Cheers) simply ran out of ideas. The point seems to be that Nick has hit rock bottom and, ironically, must find redemption in the man who he sees as the cause of his downward slide. Done right, this scenario could work. But, the way it's presented in Pushing Tin, we're never sure what the redemption is or exactly how Nick achieves it. It has something to do with him walking in a freezing Colorado stream and standing under a 747 as it lands, but that's about as deep as the movie goes.
Probably the most unforgivable thing about Pushing Tin is the way it wastes talent. I don't know how it does it, but this movie manages to make both John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton, two of America's best and most consistently interesting actors, boring.
Cusack's character is ill-defined and not particularly appealing. I know he is supposed to be unappealing so he can be redeemed in the end, but neither side ever comes into focus. Thornton's character is even worse; his Russell is so fuzzy in conception and understated in Thornton's performance that we never get even an inkling of what he's about. At times, he acts like some kind of mystical air traffic shaman; at other times, he seems cocky and jocular; but, most of the time, he's just silent. Thornton has so few lines in the film that I think I had already heard all of them in the previews. His silence is intended to convey gravity and spirit, I suppose (after all, his character is half-Indian), but he comes off as wooden and dull.
The women redeem the film to a point: Cate Blanchett, Oscar-nominated for her starring role in last year's Elizabeth, proves to be something of a chameleon actress, literally disappearing into blond hair, red nails, and a New Jersey accent. Angelina Jolie's (Gia) character suffers from some of the same fuzziness as Thornton's, but she has enough energy and vigor to at least make Mary's mysterious ambiguity interesting. We actually want to know more about her when the movie is over. Too bad that can't be said about the rest of the characters.
Copyright ©1999 James Kendrick