In Pushing Tin, the edgy new comedy from British director Mike Newell, the dominant image is a black screen pulsing with obscure florescent markings, like the characters on some early prototype of Pac-Man. But in this case, nobody's playing games. The markings represent very real jet airliners filled with very real passengers. And "pushing tin" is the term that air traffic controllers use to describe their jobs at New York's Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON). Hundreds of times per shift, these adrenaline-junkies play chicken with death, packing their planes into the limited air space above the world's busiest airports as tightly as sardines in a can.
As Newell presents them, the people who are attracted to this job are a very rare breed of cat. And none more so than Nick (John Cusack), who seems to get more of a charge than the others out of playing God. Perhaps because of the life-and-death aspect of the job, the controllers at TRACON are a tightly knit bunch. They ride to work together, eat breakfast together, and, on weekends, party together. Unofficially Nick is their leader. On the job he rattles off instructions to his pilots so fast it sounds like machine-gun fire. When the others have more flights than they can handle, Nick is always the first to come to the rescue, even if he has to stack the planes so high they're practically piggybacking one another.
Things are set up pretty much to Nick's liking, and that goes for the home front, too, where there's smooth sailing with his wife Connie (Cate Blanchett) and two kids. Then, all of a sudden, the comfy status quo of Nick's life is thrown out of balance with the arrival of a new controller, Russell (Billy Bob Thornton), who dresses in black and rides a motorcycle. Russell swaggers into the control room at TRACON with the sexy roll of a cowboy coming into town after a long cattle drive. And his legend has preceded him. According to gossip, Russell likes to play it close to the edge. Word is he once stood at the end of the runway while a 747 was landing in order to better understand turbulence.
This rocks Nick's world right down to the core. And if Russell's presence alone weren't enough to do it, Russell also happens to be married to a bombshell named Mary (Angelina Jolie), who wears leopard skin and leather and looks through men as if they were tap water. The arrival of Russell and Mary upsets Nick, and it also gives the movie a much-needed kick in the pants. Written by Glen Charles and Les Charles (the creative team responsible for Cheers and Taxi), Pushing Tin derives from a 1996 Sunday New York Times Magazine article by Darcy Frey, and, understandably, its initial appeal and most of its humor is journalistic. Their presentation of middle-class life on Long Island is not only hilarious, it also rings true.
The same goes for the performances. As Nick, John Cusack is the movie's manic engine. From the moment Russell arrives, Nick begins to lose control. Being the best is what Nick expects; he doesn't know how to be in second place, not even in something as trivial as shooting free throws. And like a man in quicksand, the faster he moves, the deeper he sinks. Russell, on the other hand, is a study in contrasts. Where Nick speeds up, Russell slows down. Where Nick becomes panicky and talks a mile a minute, Russell becomes cryptic and terse. As Russell, Thornton's minimalism makes him appear sexier and more centered. Funnier, too.
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For Blanchett playing a ditzy Long Island housewife after starring as the Virgin Queen may seem like the most radical change of pace imaginable. Regardless she has brought it off magnificently. Not only does she get all the external business down perfectly (the wig, the accent, the clothes), she also manages to give Connie an inner life that is both touchingly human and comic. Although it's certain she won't receive the acclaim for this performance that she earned for her part in Elizabeth, from my view her work in bringing this plain, good-natured woman to life is the better of the two.
Ultimately, though, it is Jolie who ends up stealing the show. As Mary she lets her eyelids droop and her lower lip swell as if she were just so full of sex that she's almost drunk. It's not just that she's sexy; that goes without saying. But she's so florid and tumescent that she's also a riotous parody of sexiness at the same time. Watching her size up Nick as he attempts to seduce her is like watching a panther toy with a mouse. In short she's amazing.
With performances as lively and engaging as these, it's hard to simply dismiss Pushing Tin. I admit that I was never actually bored. At the same time, though, the movie never really manages to come together in any meaningful way. Thematically the film revolves around the idea of control. Russell is the only controller whose life has real meaning because he has given up any expectation of control. In fact he stood at the end of the runway not to understand turbulence, but to understand surrender. And when Nick comes to Russell for answers at the end of the film, that's where he takes him. While this may make sense on a poetic level, it comes across as too pat, too Zen an explanation to be satisfying emotionally. Also there's a built-in problem with any movie that must generate the suspense of an impending midair collision using only a few scant markings on a screen. Newell shows an experienced hand with actors, and with a cast of this caliber it might seem petty to complain. The actors give off a light of their own, but in this case, unfortunately, their light reveals how little else there is to applaud.
Directed by Mike Newell. Written by Glen Charles and Les Charles. Starring John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Cate Blanchett, and Angelina Jolie.