Fly boys

John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton play cowboys and Indians in the air traffic control comedy "Pushing Tin."

Published April 23, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

"Pushing Tin" isn't just about air-traffic
controllers; it's a movie that might have been made by one.
Just as his characters work at a nerve-shredding job that
requires them to guide a bedeviling number of planes through
airspace without mishap, director Mike Newell ("Donnie
Brasco") keeps spinning out eccentric story threads,
crisscrossing them, sending them soaring, allowing them to
land gracefully or with a bump -- but never do they collide
or explode in his face. This isn't what you'd call an
orderly movie: The plot sometimes meanders into strange
places you'd rather it wouldn't. One of the picture's most
appealing characters disappears into thin air far too early
(the screenwriter's equivalent of the Devil's Triangle?).
The ending has an easy, hang-gliding charm, but it also
feels grafted on -- it gives the movie a slightly facile
sheen, wrapping it up so neatly that some of the story's
earlier subtleties seem canceled out.

But "Pushing Tin" works so beautifully from scene to scene
-- urged along by crisp dialogue (the screenplay was written
by Glen Charles and Les Charles, the guys behind "Cheers")
and the actors' unerring timing -- that it's almost always a
pleasure to watch. "Pushing Tin" is, essentially, a western:
The hotshot young controller Nick (John Cusack) gets his
cage, and his confidence, rattled by threatening newcomer
Russell (Billy Bob Thornton), whose Zenlike composure can't
be cracked. Newell riffs on all the stock issues of manly
self-esteem and competition. Nick is crushed (and does his
best to hide it) when Russell effortlessly breaks his record
shooting baskets at a barbecue get-together; when Russell,
fly-fishing in a mountain stream, throws a plump fish back,
his deadpan rationale to Nick is, "He knows I caught him and
I know I caught him." Newell understands machismo -- all men
like to show off, but what they fear most is a rival who
shows them up without breaking a sweat, especially in front
of the womenfolk -- but he's even more interested in
mischievously deflating it. His touch is so light, it's
almost feminine, and that's the weird tension that keeps
"Pushing Tin" spinning.

Newell sets the tone early on with a dry epigraph, a quote
from a real-life air-traffic controller: "You land a million
planes safely, and then you have one little midair and
you never hear the end of it." Nick and his pals, a group of
conscientious, well-meaning buffoons with nerves of (they
hope) steel, work in a boxy, nondescript building that
houses the entity known as Tracon, which stands for Terminal
Radar Approach Control. Each
controller sits in front of a "scope," wearing a headset
that allows him or her to guide planes around one another
and to ultimately bring them to a safe landing. The screens,
of course, look exactly like video games, but Newell doesn't
lean too heavily on the irony -- realizing, perhaps, that
it's not an irony at all. The first time you see a
controller's nervous face reflected in the scope's screen,
it strikes you; after that, the image becomes mundane, a
fact of life for the people who do these jobs. An alert
sounds when two planes come dangerously close, and a clutch
of well-meaning controllers gather around the operator in
control, offering helpful advice whether it's needed or not.
Occasionally, someone mentions that lives are at stake, but
not very often.

The gravity of the controllers' job is written all over them
in more subtle tones: in the way they crack absurd, blasi
jokes right after a disaster is averted (which seems to
happen an ungodly number of times every day), or the way
they keep their dark glasses on when they gather after work
for a beer and some mild flirtations in a local bar, as if
they know that the tense, wild look we see in their eyes as
they stare at their scopes may not have yet dissipated. It's
a fact of life that they might eventually crack up or even
commit suicide. When the guys get together socially for a
barbecue (only one of the controllers is a woman), one of
the wives remarks on how much money her husband brought home
the previous year: "Even after we put money away for college
and Ed's upcoming breakdown, it's a big hunk of change."

Nick seems to hold up pretty well: He's the kind of
controller who's poised enough to idly croon corny love
songs in between pattering with airplane pilots. He takes
pride in marching clusters of airplanes through grimly tight
maneuvers. "I got 'em lined up like Rockettes!" he brags,
eyeing a screenful of neatly arranged little arrows. At the
end of his shift, he goes home to his nondescript little
suburban house and his vaguely frustrated but devoted wife,
Connie (Cate Blanchett), a slim Long Island beauty whose
chenille sweaters and tight jeans are just a little bit
townie, but whose clear blue eyes betray her inner composure
and sophistication.

When Thornton's Russell Bell arrives -- part Choctaw Indian,
part legend, he explains his unflappability on the job by
saying, "I just move the blips around so they don't hit each
other and then I go home" -- he challenges Nick's reputation
as the coolest and best controller. But the hairiest and
tensest scenes take place outside their oppressive
work bunker: Nick fights a hopeless attraction to Russell's
curvy young gothabilly wife, Mary (Angelina Jolie), that
threatens to unravel his marriage -- although Newell makes
sure nothing is as simple as all that. Nick's brain, beset
by insecurity and paranoia, is the battleground here, the
site of the big showdown. His troubles can't be explained
away by a mere job, no matter how intense it is.

Part of what makes "Pushing Tin" so pleasurable is the way
its four major players -- Cusack, Thornton, Blanchett and
Jolie -- work the tension that pulls their characters
together and pushes them apart. Individually and as part of
the ensemble, each knows when to yank tight and when to give
the line some play. Just the way Thornton sets his jaw tells
you he's one of those guys who's so laid back he's wily.
When he drags his own personal folding chair over to his
scope and sits down -- the rest of the guys have modern
chairs on rollers -- you don't need to notice the lucky
feather sticking out of his hair (though you can't miss it)
to recognize that his bottomless inner calm is really just a
particularly annoying brand of insanity. In her
all-too-brief role as the lusciously imbalanced Mary, Jolie
uses her ripe features and odd little mannerisms to build a
believable and surprisingly charming character. When Nick
comes upon her crying in the supermarket, a couple of jugs
of vodka plunked visibly in her cart, her lips seem even
more swollen than her tear-smudged charcoal-rimmed eyes.
Later, as she and Nick flirt with each other over too many
drinks, she drags her finger idly along her lower lip,
absently nibbling it now and then. It's the kind of gesture
calculated to drive men wild, and Jolie the actress
effortlessly telegraphs that Mary the character knows it --
and can't help herself.

"Pushing Tin" takes a fairly sophisticated view of
commitment and infidelity: It doesn't try to reduce a
marriage's troubles to the vagaries of one cheating partner.
And maybe even more important, it may poke fun at its
middle-class characters, but it never condescends to them.
Blanchett looks completely at home in her slightly big hair,
but the intensity of her gaze dares you to laugh at her.
Just when you think she's ready to play the vulnerable,
needy one, she fixes Nick with those eyes and tells him that
the troubles they've faced in their marriage have messed him
up more than they have her, and she's right.

John Cusack has always been such an intuitive actor that
I've never feared he'd try to coast on his boyish charm as
he aged, and he hasn't. He's one of those exceedingly subtle
(and rare) actors who can play a regular guy without laying
his "everymanness" on too thick. A movie isn't a social
studies lesson. Cusack can shape a character without ever
falling back on the stock tricks -- especially the dreaded
dem, dese and dose accent -- because he doesn't need them.
There's never any question that Nick's limited education has
any bearing on his smarts -- Cusack makes sure we see the
intelligence flickering in those startlingly alert eyes.
Cusack's Nick understands that it's OK, maybe good, for a
man to show his feelings, but if the best you can do is to
show them only for a fraction of a second, that counts, too.
Disappointment, pain wrapped up tight like a boxer's fist,
miniature fears that threaten to blossom into mighty ones:
Cusack plays every masculine emotion with an almost feminine
openness. But what makes that openness work is that he never
bears down on it -- it's always so fleeting that if you're
not watching his face every second, you might miss it. It's
a feat few contemporary young actors could pull off, but
Cusack has no trouble. He really is the fastest gun in the

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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