Credit 20th Century Fox marketing with a first in my tenure as a
critic: along with the press notes for PUSHING TIN, they included a copy
of the source material. "Something's Got to Give," an article written by
Darcy Frey for the New York Times Magazine, took us behind the scenes at
the New York Terminal Radar Approach Control (or TRACON), which manages
air traffic in the busiest airspace in the world. Focusing on the events
of one Thanksgiving weekend, the article provided a brilliant and
frightening look at the people who cope with incredible stress and
appalling working conditions to prevent your plane from slamming into
another plane every time you take off or land. It was a superb piece of
reportage turned into a compelling story.
There may be a great film to be made from that story, but PUSHING TIN
isn't it. It's set at New York TRACON, all right, focusing on a hot-shot,
nerves-of-steel controller named Nick Falzone (John Cusack). Nick is the
undisputed champ at taking them up and bringing them down...until Russell
Bell (Billy Bob Thornton) comes to town. A laconic outsider who pushes
the limits of "pushing tin" -- controller lingo for maximizing the use of
airspace to keep flights on time -- Russell also pushes Nick's alpha-male
buttons, setting off a rivalry which leads to Nick sleeping with Russell's
wife Mary (Angelina Jolie), then suspecting that Russell has taken the
same liberty with Nick's wife Connie (Cate Blanchett).
For about the first half hour, and sporadically thereafter, PUSHING
TIN is actually about the high-pressure world of air traffic controllers.
Director Mike Newell employs computer graphics effectively to get us
inside how controllers see their domain, and keeps up a brisk pace to
match the frantic energy of the characters. Meanwhile, writers Glen & Les
Charles (co-creators of "Cheers") do a nice job with the camaraderie and
gallows humor that keeps everyone sane. The control room scenes dump you
right into the milieu without explaining every scrap of terminology first,
pushing you through days in the life of a place always just seconds away
from chaos and complete disaster.
In fact, just about everything is right with PUSHING TIN except its
central storyline. Cusack and Thornton are such talented actors that it
might take longer than usual to register that their conflict has virtually
nothing to do with the world of air traffic controllers. There was a
mini-series' worth of psychological material in Darcy Frey's article, but
PUSHING TIN instead chooses the mundane head-butting of Nick and Russell,
combined with smirky seductions and marital squabbles. It's a conflict
that appears to have been pasted over this backdrop by people who had no
idea what to do with it for a major studio film except tell a generic
studio film story. There's no reason for PUSHING TIN to be a film about
rival air traffic controllers if this was the story they were going to
tell; it could just as easily be a film about rival matadors, or rival
insurance salesmen, or rival periodontists.
The lack of a solid center really shows in the final 45 minutes, when
the film falls apart completely. There's a bumpy flight, a bomb scare, a
Zen immersion in a mountain stream and a showdown with jet engines, none
of which makes the characters more than the broad sketches they've been
from the start. It all builds to a climax in which the big question is
not whether these twitchy folks will cause a mid-air collision, but
whether Nick and Connie will kiss and make up, playing cutesy over a
passenger jet's radio. There was a tremendous opportunity for PUSHING TIN
to dig into the on-the-edge psyches of men responsible for thousands of
lives a day, the men Darcy Frey introduced us to in the source article.
That'll teach Fox to give us a glimpse into what might have been.
On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 tin men: 5.
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