Add Pushing Tin to the list of films that should never be shown on airplanes. The air traffic controllers at the center of this movie are so uniformly high-strung and off-kilter that the idea of putting your life in their grasp is downright terrifying.
But even though director Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco) and screenwriters Glen and Les Charles initially focus on the pressure cooker environment of Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON), a Long Island facility that regulates the cramped airspace of New York’s Kennedy and LaGuardia and New Jersey’s Newark airports, what they’re really setting up is a psychological boxing match.
The mind of Nick "The Zone" Falzone (John Cusack) is like a pinball machine: Thoughts ricochet around, make a lot of noise, then fall into place with a reassuring inevitability. Nick’s a hyperactive hotshot who knows he functions on a different plane than most people, shifting from being dead serious about the heavy responsibilities of his job to a giddy pride when he effortlessly juggles enormous amounts of information.
When the charismatic Russell Bell (Billy Bob Thornton) strides into TRACON like a laconic cowboy, the hairs on the back of Nick’s neck stand up. They’re polar opposites – Russell reacts to stress with a stoic cool while Nick chatters incessantly – but both are accustomed to being top dog. Almost instantly, they circle each other, sniffing suspiciously.
Things soon escalate from a professional competition to a personal one, which involves their very different wives. Self-sacrificing, stay-at-home mom Connie Falzone (Cate Blanchett) doesn’t seem to have much in common with the younger Mary Bell (Angelina Jolie) who radiates sexuality and disaffection. But both are alternately worshiped and ignored, and struggle to maintain identities separate from their self-absorbed husbands.
The Charles brothers (creators of "Cheers") and director Newell initially establish a tone akin to Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, creating a smart, edgy comedy with four central performances that are among the best these actors have ever done. But instead of embracing the turbulence of these lives, the filmmakers opt for reassurance and bring Pushing Tin in for a safe, comfortable landing.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].