Pushing Tin

There are several jobs, for one reason or another, I would never take. Teacher at an inner-city high school. Shelley Winter’s gynecologist. Roberto Benigni’s interpreter. Martha Stewart’s cleaning lady. And an air traffic controller.

I’ve never been inside an actual air traffic control tower, but I have seen my fair share of documentaries and movies to understand that it takes a special breed of person to juggle hundreds of planes every day. It’s the kind of job where one mistake is one too many, and the consequences are tragic. The stress alone would be enough to kill most people. Sometimes it does.

Then, in movies like the current “Pushing Tin,” there are people like Nick Falzone, who revels in his ability to get the job done without going postal. Falzone is a master of what he does, and doesn’t mind being the cock of the henhouse, which is TRACON, the New York Terminal Radar Approach Control center. He understands his place in the universe and accepts it.

Falzone’s universe implodes on itself when Russell Bell comes riding in to his life. Bell is the polar opposite of Falzone, an air traffic controller who takes risks and stacks planes on top of each other like checkers. When he’s not riding his bike, he’s riding his young 20 year-old bride Mary, who is hot to trot and not afraid to admit it.

Since there’s only room at the top for the best of the best, a rivalry erupts between Falzone and Russell that leads from the control tower into their personal lives. The two are like a vindictive Oscar Madison and Felix Unger from “The Odd Couple,” which is only fitting since “Pushing Tin” plays like and was written by television sitcom veterans.

The first two-thirds of “Pushing Tin” are actually quite engaging. Thanks to writers Glen Charles and Les Charles, the film is filled with interesting characters and some sharp, witty dialogue. Unfortunately, as the co-creators of “Cheers” and “Taxi,” “Pushing Tin” also has that episodic feel which demands that everything end happy before the last commercial break and credits.

The writers are masters of drawing room ensemble comedy. They know how to keep things moving and interesting in a one room set. Most of the action in “Cheers” and “Taxi” took place in either a bar or garage, and yet thanks to sparkling dialogue and memorable characters, we didn’t mind.

The best moments in “Pushing Tin” are the small ensemble ones that allow the upper tier cast to shine. It’s only when the film loses it focus that it loses altitude. John Cusack, whose last encounter with planes was the raucous “Con Air,” does just fine as Falzone, who thinks he has the perfect life, including a wonderful wife, yet falls apart when Bell enters the picture. Cusack is such a good actor that you’re willing to follow Falzone down any road, even if you know it’s going to end up bad.

Russell Banks is such a firebrand that it would easy for the character to become a cliche, yet Billy Bob Thornton never lets that happen. Thornton excels in roles like Banks, a man who lives on the edge, and as part Indian, has a ritual of placing a feather behind his ear before starting work. He’s such a presence that once he’s introduced, you miss him when he’s not around.

Cusack and Thornton seem to have a lot of fun with the rivalry that erupts between the two, which eventually leads to them trying to bed the other’s wife. Even though this unspoken quest leads to the film’s eventual downfall, you can’t blame the men when you consider that Cate Blanchett and Angelina Jolie play the women in question.

As good as the men are, it’s the women who win their wings this outing. Blanchett is the film’s biggest surprise. She plays a Long Island housewife named Connie who has probably never heard of Queen Elizabeth. It’s a startling transformation for the beautiful Australian actress, whose performance is flawless.

Jolie, so devastating in “Gia,” is a blast as Mary Bell, the sweet young biker chick whose very presence causes the other male controller’s radars to go haywire. Mary is all brass and sass, and Jolie never misses a beat.

The writers have done a good job of making the characters interesting, while the cast succeeds in grounding them even during some of their most outrageous antics. For instance, it’s easy to root for Bell when he stands under a departing 747 just so he can see if he’ll survive the turbulence. In real life such a stunt would have killed the person.

Director Mike Newell, who brought us the sparkling “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” does a good job of evoking the stress associated with the job, while allowing enough breathing room for the comedy. You just wish Newell and the writers had spent more time on the ending of the film, which was based on a 1996 New York Times Sunday Magazine article by Darcy Frey called “Something’s Got to Give.”

While the film has more substance than the article, it still feels like a big screen sitcom.



John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Cate Blanchett, Angelina Jolie, Jake Weber, Vicki Lewis in a film directed by Mike Newell. Rated R. 112 Minutes.


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