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"You land one million planes safely. Then you have one little mid-air and you never hear the end of it." Funny line. It appears on screen at the beginning of Pushing Tin and sets the tone. We don’t get a lot of movies that show us something about how people work. Pushing Tin uses the insanely tense world of air traffic controllers as the setting for a comedy that is genuinely funny, a warm comedy in which the humor grows out of the lives of believable characters – and the work they do. Not from body parts. Not from voyeurism. Not from high school overachievers – boy, hasn’t that one been done to death!
Glen and Les Charles, writers of the long run Cheers sitcom, provided the script for Pushing Tin and it has the earmarks of that enormously entertaining show. Here, though, instead of dealing with an ultimate group of losers hanging out in a saloon, we are dealing with people doing incredibly demanding, lives-at-stake work that requires nerves of steel, intense concentration, and the confidence to take control. While it is the work that raises the issue of control, by the end of the film we see that the Charles’ are exploring issues of control in more than just workplace situations.
Nick Falzone (John Cusack) is a confident, if not cocky, top of the heap guy in the control tower and is married to beautiful Connie (Cate Blanchett), his high school sweetheart. Enter Russell Bell (Billy Bob Thornton), a motorcycle riding man of few words, with his own record of outstanding achievement in air traffic control and a gorgeous, sexy wife half his age (Angelina Jolie). Falzone, competitive, feels challenged by the newcomer and rivalry ensues. If that conflict isn’t really grounded in much more than the "mine is bigger than your’s" mold, it nonetheless provides dramatic structure to charge the story along.
As the story develops, we also see the toll that people pay in high stress work where every decision makes the difference between a safe landing and multiple funerals. A lot of alcohol is consumed, marriages are fragile, with frequent divorces the rule, heart attacks and hypertension run disproportionately high. But, as one wife remarks, her husband, who barely earned his high school diploma, brings home a hundred grand a year.
If the script provides the basic characters (and the funny lines), it is the performers who flesh them out and the film has four topnotch performances from its leads. John Cusack has great timing on the comic lines, but also seems to be in the flesh of this overconfident niceguy, destined for a fall. He lets you see in his face the reactions, the feelings, the thoughts and realizations crossing his mind. Cusack is at the center of this story and he carries it well. Thornton has less to do, playing a man of few words, but it is nice to see him move away from the typecasting he seemed to be slipping into. Blanchett is a treasure, every bit as believable playing a working class Queens housewife as she was playing Queen Elizabeth. (And CV will never forget her wondrous performance in the little seen small masterpiece, Oscar and Lucinda.)
The surprise performance comes from Angelina Jolie whose initial impression as a motorcyclist’s floozy is quickly replaced with a sweetly etched portrait of a social worker who wonders if there aren’t people in New York who need help and gets really emotional when her houseplants die.
Don’t go expecting Wilde or Shakespeare, relax, and enjoy this primo example of what classy commercial filmmaking can be.