movie review by
David Ng


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Pushing Tin
Pushing Tin hails from the lineage of high stress comedies that find humor in occupational head butting. From Broadcast News to the under-appreciated The Paper, filmmakers have fashioned the workplace into a viper pit of egos, testosterone, and crushed emotion. Stress is the key ingredient here, and Pushing Tin, which takes place in an air-traffic control center, has enough of it to put all of its characters on permanent disability. Director Mike Newell succeeds at visualizing a world where excitement resides mostly on computer screens and in headsets. He assembles a crew of aviation geeks who are truly difficult to like at first but whose wackiness forms a lovably dysfunctional family. And he doesn’t dumb-down the technical babble that flies breakneck out of their mouths.

At the hub of the chaos is Nick Falzone (John Cusack). Part show-off, part renegade, and everyone’s older brother, Nick is unstoppable. He has the perfect job, the ideal suburban home, and a foxy wife (Cate Blanchett of Elizabeth). Cusack takes tremendous care to keep Nick just this side of arrogance. Nick occasionally steps on those who care for him, but there’s an unmistakable innocence about it all that makes it easy to forgive him. When new guy Russell Bell (Billy Bob Thornton) threatens Nick’s benevolent reign, the rivalry in the control room heats up exponentially. Thornton plays it cool and detached to Cusack’s overheated engine. Soon, the two are competing on all terrains.

Newell has brought together all of the right parts to make an adrenaline-fueled zeitgeist. And yet Pushing Tin never manages to generate much momentum, and by the end, it putters to a disappointing standstill. The root of the problem lies in how Newell frames and paces the rivalry. He fails to sustain the intensity for any appreciable length. The fights between Nick and Russell illuminate the movie like heat lightning and are gone before their impact can be felt. Newell doesn’t allot enough time for their rivalry to be consummated in their work. Instead, he has chosen to spread it across work, family, and romance. The result is disorienting. The mudslinging doesn’t feel natural in any of these settings. Pushing Tin would have benefited from longer scenes within the confines of the air traffic control room. There, the rivalry could stew deliberately on slow-boil, and occasionally, bubble over when the sky gets particularly crazy.

Pushing Tin has a lot of characters to squeeze into its two-hour running time. It spreads itself thin trying to humanize each of them when it should have earmarked some for full development and others for caricaturization. If Pushing Tin had been thirty minutes longer, Newell and screenwriters Glen and Les Charles could have brought each character to a proper close.

That aside, the acting is undeniably first-class. Cusack and Thornton achieve surprising levels of efficiency. They make the most out of every facial expression and create a complex rivalry with a minimal amount of dialogue. They are both competitive, but in their own ways. As Connie Falzone, Cate Blanchett effortlessly makes the transition from the Queen of England to a housewife from Queens (New York). She creates an intelligent woman who is comfortable with her unglamorous life. Equally brilliant is Angelina Jolie as Thornton’s bombshell of a wife. She wears her character with such self-confident ease that we forget that her part is underwritten and that she’s basically a movie cliché.

Pushing Tin also has a wealth of particular details that bring the world of air-traffic controllers to miraculous authenticity. The one woman controller happens to be a body-builder who works her wrist pumps whenever things get hectic. There’s also the fat boss who has an endless supply of gaudy ties and who always wears shirts a few sizes too small. These details are smartly understated so that they never beg for our attention, but are always there working in the film’s visual undercurrent. As in his last movie, the masterful Donnie Brasco, Newell is always in control of these small but important details.

If only as much care had been applied to developing the Cusack-Thornton rivalry. This is the central relationship of the movie, and it’s maddeningly hollow. Newell is clearly working under the glowering eyes of a studio marketing committee whose expert research shows that typical moviegoers want their movies to clock-in around two hours. Well Mr. Newell, I’m a "typical moviegoer" and I’m willing to spend more time in a theater if it means the characters and relationships are more fully formed. Pushing Tin could have been a great film if, like its voluble characters, it had refused to shut up until everyone was on the ground safe and sound.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]