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'Pushing Tin': A Bumpy Ride

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 23, 1999

  Movie Critic

Pushing Tin
Out of control: Billy Bob Thornton and John Cusack. (20th Century Fox)

Mike Newell
John Cusack;
Billy Bob Thornton;
Cate Blanchett;
Angelina Jolie;
Jake Weber;
Kurt Fuller;
Vicki Lewis
Running Time:
2 hours, 2 minutes
Contains profanity, nudity and sexual situations
Who do you have to force-feed with anthrax to stop those bad action-with-heart movies from Hollywood? I mean, that whole pandering ethos about ratcheting up a story until it fairly explodes with character over-development, heavy-handed symmetry, absurd coincidences and a compulsive need to make sure even a low-IQ amoeba will get the point of every scene and get it good. Oh, and make sure the action movie lead makes up with his woman in time for the ending.

"Pushing Tin," a fast-paced, twisty-turny, high-fiving, but ultimately spiraling disaster of a movie about air traffic controllers, gets lost in this hyperbolic cloud cover, never to be found again.

The movie, directed by Mike Newell, turns Airport Central into a frat house full of wacked out, womanizing, dysfunctional geeks, jocks and cowboys who keep jumbo jets from crashing into each other by day, then cheat on their wives or get drunk or contemplate suicide by night. Hard living, man! Control freaks who are freaking out!

Our main man is Nick Falzone (John Cusack) who "pushes tin" at New York's Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) center, earphones pasted to his head, humming songs as he tells Flight X to make a 3,000 foot drop, orders Flight Y to stay in a holding pattern and gives the landing green light to Flight Z, while he ribs one of the pilots for being a redneck. This guy rules the roost.

"He shoots! He scores!" says Nick proudly.

Into Nick's world comes Russell Bell (Billy Bob Thornton), a half-Indian flight controller and stoic nut job from out west, who wears a feather in his hair (I kid you not) and pushes the envelope when it comes to choreographing takeoffs and landings.

He's a tanned, handsome, mystical, motorbike-riding hot dog. Once – it is said – Russell stood on a runway to feel the bone-crushing turbulence of a 747 swooping over him.

Naturally, Russell's going to get under Nick's skin. So is Russell's wife, Mary (Angelina Jolie), a completely ludicrous writer's creation of a free-spirited woman who weeps over hibiscus plants that die, wears lots of turquoise rings and gets real lonely when Russell spends entire nights away from home.

Actually, the story's midsection – which gets into Nick's increasing obsession with Russell and his feverish attraction to Mary's ample bust and collagen lips – is so loopy, it's quite a gas. But screenwriters Glen and Les Charles seem to be caught in a no-fly zone when it comes to charting human behavior. They seem to have thrown in everything but Marlon Brando's leather jacket from "The Wild One" when it comes to making a cool number out of Russell. And they turn Cusack unconvincingly from a nice guy into a morally suspect, quivering wreck who becomes so demented with jealousy, fear and anger over Feather Man, he attacks stewards on planes.

Although her character is narrowly sketched (in fact, she takes up drawing to expand her mind), British actor Cate Blanchett gives Nick's wife Connie a real presence. What an actor, to go from an If-You-Please Queen of England to an air traffic widow from New York. It is almost worth watching this movie for her.

I said "almost," because "Pushing Tin" can't get away from all that alpha-male posturing in front of the computer terminals, including a pointless diversion in which our main characters duke it out, while everyone else scurries from the terminal after a major bomb threat. The movie gets worse and worse, as it taxis frenziedly from runway to runway, looking for a route to the glorious skies of a great Hollywood ending. And you sit slumped in your chair, knowing full well this is going to be nothing more than an abortive takeoff.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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