Pushing Tin Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1999

You land a million planes safely, then you have one little mid-air and you never hear the end of it.
John Cusack

A little while ago, the New York Times Magazine featured a piece written by Darcy Frey entitled "Something's Got to Give", an article that took readers into the frantic and frightening world of the air traffic controller. The article focused on one Thanksgiving weekend at the New York Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) and the daily drama of its air traffic controllers, men and women entrusted with the lives of the passengers aboard the planes in the airspace above New York. Handling up to 7000 flights in one twenty-four hour period, the article pointed out the amazing ability for the air traffic controllers to cope with the tremendous pressures of 'pushing tin'-- directing traffic in a crowded sky. Inspired by the article and the real-life drama behind it, "Pushing Tin" gives audiences a behind-the-scenes look into this obscure social milieu. Unfortunately, the resultant film is not worthy of the source material.

Is that vectoring or what?! I got them lined up like the Rockettes!

Nick 'The Zone' Falzone (John Cusack of "Grosse Point Blank" and "The Thin Red Line") is a top air traffic controller, a hotshot who presides over the comings-and-goings of passenger planes over metropolitan New York and its three airports. He seems to have a pretty firm grip on life, with his legendary reputation at work, a loving wife (Cate Blachett of "Elizabeth"), and the respect and admiration of his fellow air traffic controllers. However, trouble brews in paradise when Nick finds himself threatened by the arrival of a stranger in town, Russell Bell (Billy Bob Thornton of "A Simple Plan" and "Sling Blade").

This guy's a loose cannon!
Takes one to know one.
Billy Bob Thornton

The new air traffic controller, who hails from Denver, is the silent type and a bit eccentric, but his legendary ability to juggle airplanes and take risks precedes him. Pretty soon Nick finds himself in a constant game of one-upmanship against Russell, trying to outdo his rival at work, on the road, in bars, and at barbecues. The contest eventually escalates with Nick finding himself in a compromising position with Russell's stunning wife (Angelina Jolie), and Nick's almost perfect life quickly begins to unravel, taking its toll on his marriage and his career.

Tell me Mr. Falzone, are there people that find you charming?
Yes... well, actually they pretend, because I try so hard.

"Pushing Tin" starts off strongly, delving into the mysterious world of air traffic controlling with some terrific slice-'o-life moments and the sight of computer-generated jets whooshing above the New York skyline. The film then starts going places with the arrival of Thornton's character, and the narrative has fun with the notion of 'dueling air traffic controllers'. Unfortunately, after the first hour, the script begins to unravel faster than the stable existence of its protagonist. The film never seems to know in which direction it is going, raising several interesting plot points but never adequately resolving any of them. For example, one of the early scenes has Nick deliberately knocking over Russell's motorcycle out of spite for having been cut-off at an intersection, only to have him realize shortly after that Russell is his new co-worker. Unfortunately, nothing ever becomes of this dubious introduction. Another example would be Jolie's character, which is only developed in one major scene and then ends up dropping out of the picture completely. And though a number of interesting air traffic controllers are introduced by the script along the way, each with their own quirks, they never amount to much more than a passing curiosity or a source of comic relief.

Do you play sports, Russell?
I used to bowl when I was an alcoholic.
Did it help?
Cate Blanchett, Thornton, Angelina Jolie, and Cusack

"Pushing Tin" also never makes full use of its intriguing setting, as most of the conflict and conniving occurs outside the tower, making the air traffic control aspect of the plot tangential to the main action. The source material, Frey's article in New York Times Magazine, was chock full of interesting stories from the front line of air safety, yet the scribes have squandered it in order to tell a rather conventional mid-life crisis and dueling adversaries sort of tale.

As the film heads into the home stretch, the script throws in a number of contrived plot twists in an attempt to keep things fresh, such as a bomb threat on the control tower and some unbelievable antics that must violate a number of Federal Aviation Authority regulations. And in case your are still hoping for the film to culminate into a meaningful resolution without insulting your intelligence, the film completely falls apart at this point, substituting some silly Zen-speak and male-bonding in place of true thematic resolution and character development-- it's almost as if they couldn't figure out how to end it! Even accomplished director Mike Newell ("Four Weddings and a Funeral") couldn't save this tired effort.

Well, at least the actors were fun to watch. Cusack does very well with the smirky and over-the-top mannerisms of Nick, and Thornton brings a slightly sinister edge to his antisocial character. Blanchett, who dazzled audiences with her Oscar-nominated performance in "Elizabeth", is underused in the role of Nick's wife, though she does sport a remarkably flawless American accent. Finally, despite having only a short time on-screen, Jolie manages to show off her acting chops, breathing some life into an otherwise throwaway character.

"Pushing Tin" takes a great concept and then wastes it on a script lacking both direction and a thematic center. With its numerous missed opportunities and less-than-satisfying resolution, this was a disappointing effort that should have focused on the script instead of filling the screen with computer-generated airplanes.

Images courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.

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