For a movie about New York air traffic controllers stuffed into a crowded, windowless room, Pushing Tin manages to be rowdy, raunchy and action-packed. It’s a neat trick from director Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco), even if two hours of his dark mischief is bound to turn audiences into infrequent fliers. “Is that crisp vectoring or what?” asks controller Nick Falzone (John Cusack) as he lines up a dozen jets like Rockettes on his radarscope. The planes, traveling about one mile every ten seconds, are headed for New Jersey’s Newark Airport from different angles. It’s Nick’s job to keep them three miles apart (the federal rule) and yet pack them in as closely as possible, to push optimum air traffic without causing a collision. Nick, known as “the Zone” for his fierce concentration, plays with the blips on his scope like a video-game freak who’s high on caffeine. Never mind that the blips represent planes full of passengers. Think about that and you’ll go wacko.
Such is life at New York’s Terminal Radar Approach Control (Tracon), a tightly guarded Long Island operations center manned by nearly fifty tightly wound controllers with the responsibility to launch and land as many as 7,000 flights a day for three airports: JFK, La Guardia and Newark. Nick is Tracon’s undisputed king until the arrival of Russell Bell (Billy Bob Thornton), a philosopher cowboy – he’s half Irish and half American Indian – who rides a hog, relishes karaoke and clears his head by standing in the crushing wake of a 747. Russell is in from Colorado with his wife, Mary (the pistol-hot Angelina Jolie), 19 – she’s a Southern belle with an appetite for booze that goes deeper than her cleavage – to prove his alpha maleness in the stress capital of the aviation world.
It’s a kick to watch Cusack’s manic energy collide with Thornton’s Jedi cool as they insult pilots, gorge on doughnuts and compete at everything from basketball to babes. Nick’s one-nighter with Mary sparks Russell to put the moves on Nick’s wife, Connie, played by Aussie Oscar nominee Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth) with a dead-on Long Island accent and dazzling comic timing. The acting is electric, but it’s the hothouse atmosphere of the control center that revs up the movie.
Pushing Tin is based on a 1996 New York Times Magazine article by Darcy Frey, and the film deftly laces its fictional story with little-known facts. Although their position has few educational requirements, controllers can earn $100,000-plus per year. The downside is that the job leaves its predominantly male takers prone to depression, breakdowns, heart attacks and suicide. A controller “flameout” can lead to near-collisions. These operational errors are called “deals.” Frey pointed out that “three deals within two and a half years means the controller is pulled off the scopes, sent back to the lab simulator for retraining and must get recertified – a process that can go on for months.”
This is rich material for a movie, and Pushing Tin succeeds best when it sticks close to the control center. That’s where a core group of men, played by Jake Weber, Kurt Fuller and Matt Ross, and one woman – a bodybuilder named Tina (a standout Vicki Lewis) – goad Nick and Russell and take bets on which one will crack up first and take a mental leave.
The film loses its footing when it strays from the highs at Tracon to the shallows of domestic comedy. Glen and Les Charles, who wrote the script, are TV writers (Taxi, Cheers), and their sitcom roots show. Will Connie, a mother of two, have a revenge affair with Russell after she finds out that Nick fucked Mary? That we care at all is due to the actors, who explode the cliches and dig out the truths that define the lives of controllers and the women who live with them.
Jolie, the twenty-three-year-old daughter of Jon Voight, is a definite winner; watch her radiate sex just by touching her front teeth with her finger in tiny, teasing taps. But this Golden Globe winner (for two cable-TV movies, Gia and George Wallace) is also possessed of an undeniable talent that uncovers Mary’s bruised heart. Blanchett, 30, trades in her royal wardrobe from Elizabeth for Connie’s tight jeans, spike heels and drugstore makeup. No matter. Instead of condescending to this housewife and mother, Blanchett invests the role with delicacy and feeling.
Take the karaoke scene at an Italian restaurant, in which Russell warbles “Muskrat Love” – bet you never expected to hear Billy Bob do the Captain and Tennille – and Mary and Connie join him on harmony while Nick stares in dissonant silence. What could be mere comic relief intensifies into a chorus of conflicting motives, thanks to the alchemy of the actors. There’s no hiding the fact that this movie suffers severe turbulence in terms of script contrivances, including a bomb threat at Tracon and a funeral trip that exists only to get Nick in the air as a panicky passenger. But a sharp line, expertly delivered, soon rights the balance – Nick to flight attendant: “You think the captain controls this plane? That would scare me.” Like the best movies, Pushing Tin takes us into a new world. And this world, which finds fresh hell in the phrase fear of flying, is a lulu.