John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Cate Blanchett, and Angelina Jolie in Pushing Tin (1999)


(director: Mike Newell; screenwriter: Glen Charles; cinematographer: Gale Tattersall; editor: Jon Gregory; cast: John Cusack (Nick Falzone), Billy Bob Thornton (Russell Bell), Cate Blanchett (Connie Falzone), Angelina Jolie (Mary Bell), Vicki Lewis (Tina Leary), Jake Weber (Barry Plotkin), Kurt Fuller (Ed Clabes), Jerry Grayson (Leo Morton); Runtime: 123; Twentieth Century Fox; 1999)
“It placed all the stress problems on the laps of the controllers’ twisted personal lives.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Who’s the better man? That’s the real theme of this sitcom comedy/romance film about air traffic controllers in the NYC area covering its three major facilities: JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark. It is based on a “NY Times Magazine” article about how stressful their job is. As it stars the hotshot traffic controller, Nick Falzone (Cusack), known affectionately by his peers as “The Zone.” He is very confident of his ability to make sure planes land safely and has the keen ability to solve problems quickly. He is also known as being a fast talker and possessing a razor-sharp mind. Nick’s life changes for the emotionally worse when a new controller is transferred into his shift. He’s also a hotshot or a loose cannon, as Nick prefers to think of him. He is the soft-spoken mystery man, Russell Bell (Thornton), who battles with Nick for the top spot. He displays an extraordinary ability to keep the air lanes clear without slowing the planes down, so the airlines have no complaints to the supervisors about their planes not being on time. This is called “pushing tin.”

The film becomes a contest as to who is the better man, Nick or Russell: 1) As they vie on the job to do their assignment more expediently than the other. 2) In racing their vehicles. 3) In their basketball shooting. 4) In each other’s marriages.

They don’t care for each other, as each has different things to work out in their life and each finds something about the other one that disturbs them. The other two characters in this basically four character movie are Connie Falzone (Cate), Nick’s suburban wife and former high school sweetheart, who speaks with a fluent Long Island accent (quite different from her stronger Elizabeth 1 role); and, Mary Bell (Jolie), who is the 19-year-old alcoholic, knockout, tattooed wife of the 40-year-old Russell. She relates to the other controllers’ wives by the number of times they have been married. The wives range in numbers from one to five. All the women’ performances are cute, but they don’t have too much else going on for them to make their characters interesting.

The male stars keep the film flying along. Billy Bob might just be the best character actor in the movies today. He keeps his character Zen-like and puzzling, despite being hampered with an inept script. He offers us a contrast to Nick’s slightly off-beat regular guy role. Nick is the one who is supposedly contented with his family life and his job; that is, until Russell pulls the rug out from under him and he begins to unravel in all area’s of his life. I just wish Cusack would lose that coy smile he seems to bring with him in every role he has, it is starting to wear thin on him.

These stars, to their credit, make their characters seem more real than they have a right to be. The story is just too thin to carry much weight on it, except to follow its commercial instincts and provide the audience with enough obvious action sequences to keep the pace of the film moving at jet speed. It doesn’t allow you to think about the real turbulence that could have been experienced about traffic controllers’, which is caused by job stress over working conditions.

The British director, Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco/Four Weddings and a Funeral), has a sound ear for comedy and a way of capturing the tense work scene in the control tower. He gave the audience a chance to be looking over their shoulders at the computer screens the traffic controller’s work with and to see the job they do.

Unfortunately, the film chose not to go in the direction of political insights. So no mention is made of the Patco strike (1981) where President Reagan fired over 11,000 controllers of the 17,000 in the nation, creating a shortage that still exists; even though, replacements were found for most of those laid off. But the flights have increased many-fold since then, leaving them with the same stressed-out conditions they complained about before and with less experienced men on the job. It is really astonishing that a film about traffic controllers wouldn’t even mention the most startling event that ever happened to them.

It was the director’s ear for comedy that made the film enjoyable, despite the sitcom feel to this story. At times it made me cringe with disappointment wishfully thinking that this capable cast, including the fine supporting players, could have really done well with this subject matter if they were only presented with a potent script instead of this trivial one.

It placed all the stress problems on the laps of the controllers’ twisted personal lives. When Nick screws up, nearly causing two crashes within a short-time span at work, it is all because his wife left him over his infidelity with Russell’s wife and Russell retaliated by screwing his wife. Yet, the real cause of stress, the unimproved work conditions at the airports, is not even broached.

In any case, the humor and the banter among the workers was constantly funny. The low-key, understated wit of Russell was even more hilarious than the workers’ gallows humor. It was laugh-out-loud humor. In the macho driving scene, where Nick is making an effort to get to know his rival, he invites him out for donuts after work and starts passing cars and trucks while racing on the crowded Long Island Expressway. But he can’t even fluster Russell who has taken his own car and has no trouble keeping up with him. As Nick stops for a light, the light turns green and he sits exasperated with his hands folded over the wheel and Russell quietly says “The light isn’t getting any greener;” and, so, Nick puts on one more burst of daredevil riding and pulls into the donut shop, and all Russell could say after that harrowing ride is: “Oh good, the shop is open… .” Now, that was a funny scene!