Light Turbulence

No-fly zone: John Cusack in Pushing Tin

Even though I'll admit to a waning crush on John Cusack, I was interested in seeing Pushing Tin not because it's billed as a romantic comedy but because it's based on one of the most terrifying pieces of journalism I've ever read. Darcy Frey's "Something's Got to Give," a New York Times Magazine cover story from 1996, detailed the goings-on at the New York-area TRACON (Terminal Approach Radar Control), where air-traffic controllers handle some 7,000 flights in a 150-square-mile area each day. In a profession that's already notoriously stressful, they deal with insane amounts of overtime, ancient equipment that seems to short out regularly, and burgeoning numbers of flights with no corresponding increase in staff to deal with them. No wonder "going down the pipes" (i.e., freaking out on the job) comes with the territory. Frey portrayed the controllers as a spectrum of alpha-male, Type A personalities with a penchant for gallows humor and a sometimes frightening cockiness. Some are bullies; others have uncontrollable twitches they're not even aware of. All are uniformly wired on megadoses of caffeine.

Given this, an art-house version of Pushing Tin might've played like a modern-day Wages of Fear, the French classic from the '50s about truckers driving a load of nitroglycerin over a treacherous mountain pass. But this is a product of Hollywood, where no one wants an unrelenting anxiety attack of a movie. Thus the more suitable/salable romantic-comedy angle, which was fashioned by writers Glen and Les Charles, the sibling team responsible for two of TV's most popular workplace comedies, Taxi and Cheers. As such, Pushing Tin comes off as decent, meat-and-potatoes entertainment with refreshingly real characters (by Hollywood standards, anyway).

Nick Falzone, a.k.a. "No-Fly Zone" (John Cusack), is the de facto champ of the New York-area TRACON. He not only gets his own planes lined up like ducks in a row, but is always game for picking up the slack when his co-workers get overloaded. A good-natured, cruisin'-through-life kind of guy, he's not above flirting with the local ladies at the diner after a night shift; he's got a nice house in a latter-day Levittown, a beautiful wife, Connie (Cate Blanchett), and two kids. If he's a little bit edgy, Nick's not going over the edge anytime soon.

Enter Russell Bell (Billy Bob Thornton), a laconic, half-Choctaw biker from out West who, legend has it, once got his kicks by standing under a 747 as it landed. When he's introduced to the New York crew, he has that lost-little-kid look that most people have on their first day at a new job, but he immediately upstages Nick on the scopes. Top dogs don't take kindly to being taken down a notch, and so other manly contests ensue outside of work, all of which Russell wins with a gracious, almost Zen-like reserve. Suddenly, it seems Nick can't get a break to save his sanity. If he makes a show of lip-synching at his favorite Italian restaurant, his new nemesis wows everyone by crooning "Muskrat Love"--for real. The guy even gets a croissant at the doughnut shop where Nick insists there aren't any.

The rivalry between the two expands to encompass their spouses when Nick encounters Russell's wife Mary (Angelina Jolie)--young, gorgeous, arrogant, miserable, and "quite the sauce monster," as Nick puts it--sobbing one night in the grocery store. He invites her to dinner, and Russell, in turn, lures Connie with a loan of his French-lesson cassettes. Thankfully, the movie doesn't take the torrid obsession route, although a mistake does occur for which the parties involved may or may not have to pay dearly.

Pushing Tin is eminently watchable, if not outstanding, much like two of director Mike Newell's other films: Donnie Brasco, an overrated take on the mobster genre; and the ridiculously successful Four Weddings and a Funeral. Much of Pushing Tin's appeal derives from the cast. Cusack turns his manic, boyish charm on full force, while Thornton completes his evolution from the slow-witted loner of Sling Blade into a lean, quietly charismatic stud. Done up with a shaggy, strawberry-blond 'do, a French manicure, and an expert accent, Blanchett plays like a native Long Islander. Jolie, meanwhile, offers another attention-getting turn in the smallest of the major roles--she's cheesecake with both verve and intelligence.

All four are good enough to overcome (if not completely transcend) some clunky dialogue and clumsily drawn-out scenes, but extra kudos go to Cusack, for leaving his lips chapped in one scene; to Jolie, for presenting an unattractively puffy and tear-stained face in another; and to a supporting cast that comes off as a group of well-rounded human beings rather than caricatured props. In fact, coming from an industry that usually limits itself to portraying spectacular wealth, splendidly comfortable affluence, or strikingly trashy low-life, Pushing Tin's focus on an increasingly rare species--middle-class people--is quite remarkable. Nick, along with his cohorts, isn't nouveau riche but nouveau "I'm doing okay"; and, for the most part, the movie gets it right, without patronizing.

So what about all the air-traffic control stuff? Newell and Co. work in the requisite factual exposition in the opening scenes, and do their best to make the job look sexy and exciting in the rest of the movie. A couple of special-effects interludes, for example, transform the radar scope into a 3-D, computer-game-like playing field--which simply makes one wonder why the computer revolution hasn't yet trickled down to air-traffic control. And, as movies are wont to do, Pushing Tin takes the suspension-of-disbelief rule and runs with it. One minute the controllers are frantically barking orders into their headsets; the next, they've abandoned their posts to gather around someone else's scope. (So do the planes suddenly stop arriving, or what?) There's also a lengthy conversation between a controller and a plane, during which several dozen flights would've crashed in real life. But sometimes the unreality serves the humor, as when an increasingly paranoid Nick, flying home from a funeral, becomes convinced that Russell, back at the TRACON, is messing with the airplane. Still, after reading Frey's article, it'd be impossible not to think that the horror is given short shrift in the movie.

Not that this should be held against the filmmakers. Even if it never quite synchronizes into an exhilarating, seamlessly interrelated whole, and even if its formulaic skeleton shows through in places, Pushing Tin is exceptionally above average as romantic comedies go. Which is saying a lot these days.


Pushing Tin starts Friday at area theaters.

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