Movie Review: Pushing Tin (1999)

Fast-paced air-controller drama unto Zen _ 8.5/10
Review by Brian Wright

Pushing TinZack looks around at his colleagues, these controller-magicians who keep the skies safe by coming to work, day after day, and pulling rabbits out of their scopes. “This whole job is an endurance test, from the first day until you retire. And you know who holds the whole thing together? We do. We don’t do it for the FAA, and we don’t do it for the airlines. We do it for ourselves. We just keep pumping tin.” He turns to his scope and watches as it fills once again with blips—six jets from the south, four from the west, four from the north—American 1438, turn right heading 260! Traffic off your 3 o’clock!—planes and then more planes, no end in sight. — from New York Times Magazine, article by Darcy Frey, “Something’s Got to Give,” March 24, 1996.

TRACON air traffic controller: “You land a million planes safely, then you have one little mid-air, and you never hear the end of it.”

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Article by Darcy Frey
Screenplay by Glen Charles
Screenplay by Les Charles
Directed by Mike Newell

John Cusack … Nick Falzone
Billy Bob Thornton … Russell Bell
Cate Blanchett … Connie Falzone
Angelina Jolie … Mary Bell
Jake Weber … Barry Plotkin
Kurt Fuller … Ed Clabes
Vicki Lewis … Tina Leary
Matt Ross … Ron Hewitt

Hard to believe this film is now 13 years old, 1999, perhaps prime time for the male stars John Cusack [Grosse Pointe Blank (1997), High Fidelity (2001)] and Billy Bob Thornton [Sling Blade (1996), Primary Colors (1998)]; and early breakout time for the female stars Angelina Jolie [Gia (1998), Girl Interrupted (1999)] and Cate Blanchett [Oscar and Lucinda (1997), Elizabeth (1998)] There’s an amazing symmetry in the careers of those with lead roles. One wishes one were the fly on the wall as someone with money and connections discerned a movie in the gonzo New York Magazine article by Darcy Frey as interpreted via the screenplay of Cheers‘ Glen and Les Charles.

The reality of air traffic controllers seldom gets an airing—yuk, yuk. I recall Roger Ebert on TV basically not liking the technology scenes in Pushing Tin, but then in his actual print review he comments:

The movie is worth seeing, for the good stuff. I’m recommending it because of the performances and the details in the air-traffic control center [my emphasis]. The director is Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco, Four Weddings and a Funeral). His gift in making his characters come alive is so real that it actually underlines the weakness of the ending. We believe we know Russell and Nick—know them so well we can tell, in the last half hour, when they stop being themselves and start being the puppets of a boring studio ending [my emphasis].

I swear that Ebert put the movie down during his broadcast, asserting that the technology was overwhelmingly out of place. But what I find bizarre is his accusation of a ‘boring studio ending.’ I’m not going to spoil the ending in any way, but if you agree with Ebert’s label of boring then you will also think a nuclear attack is empty of drama. I think Roger really meant to criticize the ending for being ‘trick.’ If so, it’s a supremely clever trick, and IMHO[1] perfectly wraps the story.

Back to that story. Pushing Tin shows us an environment most of us are blissfully unaware of… and for good reason. Remember the adage: you don’t want to know how they make sausage… or laws. The same can be said of the high-intensity combination video game and futures trading floor that the TRACON facility—the busiest ATC hub on the planet—in Westbury, Long Island, New York, represents. It’s a pressure cooker. Not everyone can accept the responsibility, exhibit the competence, or maintain the sanity of seeing all those planes and people efficiently to safety. Scary stuff, when viewed from the outside.

But the writers and director bring life to these people on the inside, their grim sense of humor and bravado… as they monitor the blips on their screens, rapidly snapping instructions to the pilots, mixed with slang and quips, like experts in a game of Madden NFL video football with live players. The best of the best, the most A of the Type As at TRACON is Nick Falzone (John Cusack), aka the Zone: he’s the fastest and most accurate of these knight-pushers of the skies, the leader. But something is missing, his confidence lives too close to the surface and is based on his day-to-day skills and the accouterments of success he enjoys in the burbs with his wife Connie (Cate Blanchett).

air traffic controllerInto the mix comes a new controller, Russell Bell (Billy Bob Thornton), and his smokin’ hot young wife Mary (Angelina Jolie). Russell is an entirely different breed o’ cat, a recovering alcoholic who wears a feather in his headset and learns French in his spare time. He’s also a cracker-jack controller, as good as the Zoner. But where Nick is still wrestling with all the cravings of ‘the season of the rising sap’ (as writer Tom Wolfe has put it) the older Russell exudes the maturity of a man who has put his inner demons behind him. Nick’s inner conflict, as accentuated by Russell, drives the plot to its—to me —logical and satisfying conclusion.

Aside from the several sequences of local color, the bantering, and the often comic social world of the Falzones and their ATC-family friends, I want to point out two special qualities that stand out in Pushing Tin. First, the performance of Cate Blanchett as Connie is simply dead solid perfect. She’s an Australian-born actor who masters every nuance of the modern upper middle-class native New York (also a hottie) housewife, from the speech patterns to her anxious strivings to live a good life—she’s taking an adult-ed painting class in order to, as she nervously tells her husband, “have a life of the mind, you know.”

Second, Dean Martin. That’s right, the ol’ Italian crooner sings a couple of tunes that will peg your sentimentality meter. His rendition of “Return to Me” reminds you that while Frank Sinatra may have risen to Chairman of the Board, Dino will always outrank him in many musical fiefdoms as The King of Cool. Superbly entertaining movie, with a metaphysical-spiritual punch… NOT boring.

[1] in my humble opinion

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