Pushing Tin

on April 23, 1999 by Annlee Ellingson
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Based on a New York Times Magazine article written in 1996, "Pushing Tin" takes viewers into a world they've rarely seen before: an air traffic control room. Nick "No Fly Zone" Falzone ("Grosse Pointe Blank's" John Cusack), a charming, fast-talking New York Italian, is the best of the best at what he does, managing the planes that fly into his airspace with confidence and ease while eluding the pasty pallor his greasy colleagues assume over time in an occupation known for its astronomical rates of depression, alcoholism and suicide. The high-stress job pays well, though, securing Nick a family home in the Long Island suburbs as well as allowing his wife Connie ("Elizabeth's" Cate Blanchett) to pursue personal enrichment through art classes in a local adult extension program.
   Nick's cock-of-the-walk routine is disrupted, however, by the arrival of Russell Bell ("A Simple Plan's" Billy Bob Thornton), a part Native American with a loud motorcycle and busty young alcoholic wife Mary ("Playing By Heart's" Angelina Jolie), whose calm, quiet, Zen-like approach to his job contrasts sharply with Nick's intense personality. Soon Russell's ability to surpass Nick on the free throw line and at the scopes, seemingly without even trying, drives Nick over the edge. He sleeps with Russell's wife, breaking an unwritten rule in the profession, and systematically loses his wife, his job and his life.
   Like his character, Cusack's the center of attention in this film, and he encapsulates the role adeptly, the lively dialogue by "Cheers" creators Glen and Les Charles tripping off his tongue as nimbly as the air controller jargon, barraging audiences with a stream of wit and charm that registers just before he's on to his next clever tidbit. Thornton's Russell is a little harder to get to know. He seems oblivious to Nick's rising jealousy until a spontaneous wrestling match in the middle of a crisis proves that he's just another alpha male in a battle that can only end with one of them leaving. But it's not quite clear what drives him to that point, as he even casually brushes aside his wife's infidelity as a sort of non-issue.
   This is a guy's story, and women don't really factor into the equation here except as something the men can take from each other. Still, Blanchett (in a role so far removed from her Oscar-nominated performance in "Elizabeth" as to render her unrecognizable) is convincingly sympathetic as the high school sweetheart-turned-stay-at-home mom who's slightly ditzy but still loaded with self-respect, and Jolie comes off as enigmatic and mysterious as her man.
   Eventually one gets the feeling that there's a message beneath the belly laughs, that the filmmakers are trying to say something about human nature through the unprovoked competition between these two men. Their jobs--and their lives--are about control, or the lack of it. As his life falls apart around him, Nick is desperate to get it back and thinks Russell has the answer. But the answer's unspoken. It has to do with jumping into a freezing Colorado river and standing under a landing 747 just to feel its wake (which, by the way, looks hilarious from a distance but hokey close-up). You can't find it by thinking about it or analyzing it or talking about it, and ultimately the audience is left out in the cold. Let's just hope the inexplicit ending doesn't lead to a rash of thrill seekers lining airport runways in search of the meaning of life. Starring John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Cate Blanchett and Angelina Jolie. Directed by Mike Newell. Written by Glen Charles & Les Charles. Produced by Art Linson. A Fox release. Comedy. Rated R for language and a scene of sexuality. Running time: 123 minutes
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