Rated R - Running time: 2:03 - Released 4/23/99

"You land a million planes safely; then you have one little mid-air, and you never hear the end of it."

This quote is printed on the screen during the opening minutes of Mike Newell's Pushing Tin, a hectic film about the hectic lives of air traffic controllers, starring John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton. The quote is from an article called "Something's Got to Give" by Darcy Frey, upon which Pushing Tin is based, and aptly conveys the legendary pressure under which air traffic controllers work. For the first hour, the film does this job, too — it builds tension, tempers it with humor, and then builds more tension. But the end of the movie is a shambles; Newell loses the thread and never finds it, and the tie-it-up-with-a-bow screenplay, by famous Cheers producers Glen and Les Charles, doesn't help matters.

Cusack plays Nick Falzone, an extremely charming and funny New York controller, who is known to his friends simply as "Zone." He's cool as a cucumber in the most pressure-filled situations; he can guide a dozen jumbo jets safely in while singing old '50s tunes, and never miss a call. Then comes Russell Bell (Thornton). Bell is a new controller just in from out West; a quiet and mysterious character whom Nick can't quite pin down. But one thing is clear: He's good at what he does. Soon after Russell starts his job, he and Nick are in a fierce competition for how many planes they can handle at once and how expediently they can guide them to the asphalt.

At an office picnic, Nick and his wife Connie (Kate Blanchett) meet Russell's wife Mary (Angelina Jolie), whose aloof nature makes Russell look like the life of the party. The pair impress everyone with their weirdness, but certainly seem to have plenty of affection for each other. But, to Nick's annoyance, all the women he talks to, including Connie, find Russell "interesting."

The next day, Nick runs into Mary at the supermarket; she is sobbing uncontrollably. Russell has engaged in his frequent habit of disappearing overnight, but she says that's not the reason she's crying. Thinking Mary must be in an unhappy marriage, Nick takes her out to dinner to cheer her up. You can guess what happens next. A few hours later they're in bed together, both spent and guilty, regretting the results of too much wine. But when Mary tells Russell about her experience with Nick, then the job pressure really gets intense.

John Cusack, with excellent films like Grosse Pointe Blank and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil under his belt, has forged a solid reputation as an actor who can handle serious situations with a touch of good-natured sarcasm. This is plainly evident in his characterization of Nick; we see the journey he makes from a clever wisecracker to a man truly afraid of losing his wife and his position as top dog at the office. Moreover, Thornton maintains his winning streak, following the excellent work he has done in titles like Sling Blade, The Apostle, and A Simple Plan. Blanchett, with a smaller role, offers her considerable (Oscar-nominated) talent, and Jolie is mysterious, yet simple.

But where Pushing Tin goes wrong is in its attempt to "fix" all the characters' problems in the final reel. It would have been much more effective if director Newell had cut the last 20 minutes, allowing us to draw our own conclusions about the story's resolution; instead, he hammers away until all the final pegs are in place. The hard-edged, high-pressure feel is lost, and without it the film degenerates to a feel-good romance, weakening its overall effect. ***½

Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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