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by: Scott Renshaw

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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