Pushing Tin

Pushing Tin (1999)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Cast: John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton
Extras: Theatrical Trailer

Making a movie can often be like cooking a meal. You want to start with the best, freshest ingredients and hope that everything combines to create a wonderful outcome. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. With "Pushing Tin", many wonderful ingredients, in the form of a great cast, experienced writers, and an acclaimed director, have been put together to create a cinematic meal. Is it a treat for the taste buds or is it bland? "Pushing Tin" takes the viewer into the high-pressure world of air-traffic controllers, at the control center for the New York City area. There, we meet Nick Falzone (John Cusack), whose nickname is "The Zone," because he is the best, fastest, and coolest controller around. In the first scene, we are introduced to Nick’s maverick style of controlling, as he lines up plane-after-plane, so that there is a constant stream of traffic. Nick and his fellow controllers, work hard and play hard, as evidenced by their fast driving, alcohol consumption, and tumultuous marriages.

Into Nick’s little world comes Russell Bell (Billy Bob Thornton), a controller from Arizona who has a reputation for being a little weird. Without being cocky, Russell begins work and immediately proves that he is as good as, if not better than, Nick at controlling a large number of planes. This creates an intense rivalry between the two (mostly on Nick’s part). The rivalry increases (again on Nick’s part), when Nick meets Russell’s enchanting wife Mary (Angelina Jolie). Now, Nick sees himself in competition with Russell not only at work, but in the bedroom as well. The rivalry, coupled with the stressful job, puts both men on a collision course with a breakdown.

"Pushing Tin" offers us a glimpse into the lives of air-traffic controllers. But that’s it — it’s only a glimpse. I had expected the movie to give a great deal of insight into what make these people tick. Instead, I just got a glossy overview of their stressful lives. Yes, we see the drinking, the risk-taking, the failed marriages, and even a controller who has completely burned out, but nothing is done to distinguish these things from any other profession. These could have been doctors, lawyers, bankers — any high-stress job. Also, we learn very little about what air-traffic controllers do or why they took the jobs in the first place.

There are some clever computer graphics that help explain what Nick is doing when he’s guiding the planes in, but that’s about as far as it goes. I didn’t expect "Pushing Tin" to be a career-counseling training film on air-traffic controllers, but I would have liked more insight into what makes a person take such a stressful job. (To be fair, the $100,000 a year salary is mentioned, and I can see that as an incentive.)

While the film does little to shed light on the inner workings of the controllers, there are some little things that help us to get to know the characters better. The control center is in a windowless, underground room, so Nick and his friends always wear sunglasses when they are outside. Also, the co-workers throw a party and we get a peek at the comraderie that exists between them. The message is given that when so many lives are at stake, you have to be able to bond with, and therefore trust, the person sitting at the next console. And we do get to see one character who has a healthy way of dealing with the stress of the job (by bodybuilding), but it would have been nice to see more things like this.

Director Mike Newell ("Four Weddings and a Funeral", "Donnie Brasco") has given the film a nice look, especially contrasting the light and dark parts of the characters’ lives. The control-room is fairly dark, being that it’s underground. But even when the characters are out and about, things rarely get bright, thus reflecting the turmoil that the characters are facing. However, the pacing of the film is a bit sluggish, and at two-hours plus, is far too long.

Writers Glen and Les Charles (creators of "Cheers") have focused so much on the relationships between the characters, that the reasons for their motivating neuroses gets lost in the shuffle. I suppose one could read a message into the film concerning the irony that Nick can direct huge aircrafts to safety, but he can’t run his own life, but once Nick reaches his low-point, the viewer may be beyond caring. Despite the fact that there are many characters and complex relationships between them, at times it feels like the film has no real plot, or story to tell. If I want to see bad relationships, I can watch Sally Jesse — I wanted to know more about the air-traffic controllers.

Despite these problems, the cast is able to rise above the material, but there are some odd performances. I always enjoy seeing John Cusack and his work in "Pushing Tin" is very good. Still, it’s hard to picture the always cool, sometimes agitated Cusack as stressed-out, and there were times in the film where I just didn’t believe it. Thornton is good as Bell, but he almost plays the character as too mysterious. We know that Bell is a bit of a wacko, but Thornton goes through most of the film with the same blank stare, telling us almost nothing about his character. Jolie also underplays her role and her mumbling is incomprehensible at times. The standout of the cast is Kate Blanchett, who plays Nick’s wife. This Australian actress is totally believable as a New Jersey housewife, accent and all.

The 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment DVD of "Pushing Tin" is presented in its original theatrical <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The framing appears to be accurate as there is no bending or warping of the frame, and there appears to be no visual information missing from the top or bottom. The picture is very clear, showing no signs of artifacting, however there is some grain apparent during the opening credits. This transfer reveals no significant flaws in the source material. The color balancing and shading of the transfer appear to be very accurate. This accuracy allows director Newell’s understated and often soft lighting to be fully appreciated.

The audio mix on "Pushing Tin" is especially impressive. The Dolby Digial 5.1 surround sound is very active throughout the film, which (I’ve found) is unusual for a drama. The highlight is during the opening credits. To illustrate the stress of the job, we see that the sky is full of airplanes. These planes fly across the screen with a whoosh! that fills the speakers. During this segment, the planes not only fly across the screen but from behind the viewer as well, showing off how rear speakers should be utilized. The only extra on the "Pushing Tin" DVD is the theatrical trailer. It is presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio and markets the film as a comedy.

While "Pushing Tin" has some strong points, it didn’t live up to my expectations. It’s mentioned in the film that air-traffic controllers have a high suicide rate, but we’re never privy to the lifestyle that would cause this. What we get is a mediocre drama about relationships being pushed to the limits. The acting is good, but the film is just too long. The DVD presents an excellent transfer of the film, demonstrating audio and visual prowess. But, I can’t recommend flying out to see this one.