“Pushing Tin” makes for a lively flight most of the way, but then coasts in on its approach toward a routine landing. This punchy and involving look at the cowboys who form the seemingly crazed fraternity of air traffic controllers benefits from its privileged peek at a fresh milieu and from some fine character detailing by the four leading players. Unfortunately, story’s tension climaxes a half-hour before the film is over, and thereafter dissipates much of the charge and good will generated up to that point. Nicely textured adult feature looms as a modest B.O. performer for Fox in the three weeks leading up to the takeoff of the higher-flying “Star Wars” aircraft.
After his success with “Donnie Brasco,” British director Mike Newell continues his investigation of New York subcultures with this portrait of a special breed. These men and the occasional woman thrive on macho competitiveness and perform a high-tension high-wire act whenever they sit down at their radar screens on Long Island to guide 7,000 planes a day in and out of the world’s busiest airspace, encompassing Gotham’s three international airports.
Script by Glen and Les Charles, writer-producers of “Cheers” and “Taxi” among other TV comedy series, disposes of necessary exposition efficiently enough (controllers suffer from higher rates of clinical depression, alcoholism, suicide, etc., than members of any other profession) and attempts to create a sense of camaraderie and group dynamics among the well-paid but stressed-out workers.
But just two of them emerge from the pack with any depth: Nick Falzone (John Cusack), the highly emotive, self-confessed ace of the team who can take any pressure the job dishes out, and Russell Bell (Billy Bob Thornton), a new arrival from out West whose Zenlike cool and taste for high-risk challenges unnerves Nick.
Nick’s family provides his anchor to reality. His wife, Connie (Cate Blanchett), is a great woman, a suburban mother of two who is not exactly a brain but conscientiously dabbles in classes to improve herself while giving her frequently fried husband all the love and support he needs. As long-term middle-class marriages go, this has the appearance of a pretty good one.
But Russell and his wife, Mary (Angelina Jolie), are something else altogether. A part-Indian biker who wears a chief-style feather at work and is rumored to have survived standing directly in the wake of a 747 on a runway, the teetotaler Russell is a mysterious, intimidating man; to relax, he plays intense videogames (which bear a striking resemblance to the controllers’ radar scopes), and he enjoys a conspicuously hot relationship with his voluptuous young wife, who dresses like a tart and has a weakness for booze.
The film smartly charts the constant testing and one-upmanship between the two quite different men who thrive on living dangerously, confident in their ability always to come out on top. A logjam in the air, a free-throw contest at a neighborhood barbecue, a simple ride in a car — anyplace is fair game for another test of which man is better.
Despite an unwritten rule in the profession that controllers don’t sleep with colleagues’ wives, Nick can’t resist taking advantage of Mary’s drunken vulnerability one evening. But even though he’s now trumped his rival in the ultimate way, Nick suddenly grows increasingly suspicious and paranoid of Russell as well as of his own wife’s possible interest in the “half-breed,” traits that ultimately assume monstrous magnitudes.
The characters’ personal and domestic travails quickly assert themselves as more interesting than their momentary professional challenges; while the chaotic air traffic center provides an initially fascinating backdrop, it soon becomes clear that the dramatic possibilities inherent in the work are limited, unless an entirely unrealistic succession of crises were to be fabricated. All the same, the script would have profited by more decisively delineating a greater number of characters at the outset, then allowing Nick and Russell gradually to assume center stage. As it is, everyone here remains wallpaper except for the four leads.
Erotic/paranoid/competitive tension among Nick and Connie and Russell and Mary is deliciously sustained until Nick is undone at home by Connie’s learning the truth, and at the office by Russell’s becoming a media hero. Final half-hour turns tiresomely conventional, as Nick fights to regain his wife as well as his shredded professional skills.
Cusack maintains a winning way in his characterization up to the turning point, effectively conveying Nick’s ambivalent nature in his simultaneous love for his wife and lust for Mary, and in his need to compete with Russell even as he tries to be his friend. But his manic desperation becomes a bit much in the final couple of reels.
By maintaining his reserve and leaking aspects of his character in only the smallest increments, Thornton registers with great charisma, humor and force, while Jolie is alluring and emotionally convincing as a lynx in a world of house cats. But the biggest surprise is Blanchett, the Aussie actress who makes the almost unimaginable leap from “Elizabeth” to a Long Island housewife with complete conviction and adds more layers to her performance than anyone else.
Pic’s visual-effects highlights are found in numerous cutaways to jets crisscrossing the skies, often in scary proximity to one another; “Pushing Tin,” which is slang for the controllers’ job of directing planes into flight patterns, is one of the most dubious candidates ever for in-flight airline viewing. Production values are smoothly pro all the way.