Pushing Tin (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Pushing Tin, from acclaimed British director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Enchanted April), is the latest example of a movie that wastes a strong cast on a lame script. The film, billed as a dramatic comedy about the lives of air traffic controllers, relies on bad dialogue, formulaic plot elements, and circumstances that push the viewer's tolerance of the preposterous past the point at which a willing suspension of disbelief continues to apply. It's too bad, because the premise is inherently interesting, but the screenplay (by Glen & Les Charles) is unwilling to take chances. Instead, it uses stock events to push events forward.

The movie opens with the following quote: "You land a million planes safely, then you have one little mid-air and you never hear the end of it." Cut to the busy skies above New York City, with planes passing each other as they head away from or towards the runways at Newark, JFK, or Laguardia. Then we enter the busy world of the air traffic controllers - a hive of frantic activity where dozens of men and women monitor screens and bark orders to the pilots of the 7000 flights that pass through New York's 150 square miles of airspace every day. It's a great way to begin a motion picture. Unfortunately, that's the only thing about Pushing Tin that can be considered great.

Nick Falzone (John Cusack) is the best air traffic controller in the New York metro area. He has it all: the admiration of his boss, the respect of his peers, and the love of two kids and a devoted wife, Connie (Cate Blanchett). Enter Russell Bell (Billy Bob Thornton). Russell is a hotshot from Denver and Phoenix who delights in pushing the envelope and taking risks. Almost immediately, he and Nick become locked in a rivalry that reaches its climax when Nick sleeps with Russell's young, lonely wife, Mary (Angelina Jolie). That single event puts Nick's marriage and career in jeopardy.

One of the most irritating aspects of Pushing Tin is the tired manner in which the competition between Nick and Russell is developed. The two engage in all of the traditional and expected posturing. Each tries to bring in more planes in tighter situations. They try to outdo each other while driving, on the basketball court, and even when it comes to ordering snacks at a donut shop. It's a nasty, contentious relationship that makes the denouement seem blatantly contrived. And that's only one thing I didn't buy about these characters. However, while Nick, Russell, and Connie all have their holes, Mary never evolves beyond the level of a gorgeous-but-underdeveloped plot device. In fact, she's so woefully presented that there's only one scene (when she's being comforted by Nick over dinner) in which she seems like more than an object.

At least the acting is solid, which is fortunate because the film drags on for two hours. John Cusack is his usual reliable self, playing a generally likable guy with a bit of an edge. Billy Bob Thornton, best known for his work in Sling Blade, presents Russell as a macho, antisocial fellow with something explosive simmering just beneath the surface. Cate Blanchett, nominated in 1999 for a Best Actress Oscar for Elizabeth, does her best with a thinly-written role (her American accent is impeccable). Angelina Jolie, who is both vivacious and talented (she's the best thing in the recent Playing by Heart), is criminally underused. Considering the ways she's used, it's almost a miracle that we develop any sense of sympathy for Mary.

Often, audiences are willing to accept a lot in the name of comedy. Problems abound, however, in a film like this that wants us to believe it's grounded in reality (instead of in the absurd milieu where films like There's Something about Mary exist). There are simply too many impossible-to-swallow contrivances: people surviving being buffeted by the turbulence in a 747's wake, a bomb scare with a red digital countdown, frequent violations of FAA regulations, and an idiotic sequence on an airplane when a character tries repeatedly to get into the cockpit (yet isn't arrested upon landing). There are a few nice scenes, including the opening and the one in the restaurant with Nick and Mary. There's also a fresh undercurrent of cynicism (at least early in the movie - it evaporates later) that's exemplified by the line "Keeping [passengers on planes] alive is a close second [priority] to keeping them on time." But Pushing Tin's few good qualities get lost in the avalanche of weaknesses. Consider this one a Spring disappointment.

Pushing Tin (United States, 1999)

Run Time: 2:04
U.S. Release Date: 1999-04-23
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1