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Pushing Tin

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Pushing Tin

Starring: John Cusack, Billy Bob Thorton
Director: Mike Newell
Rated: R
RunTime: 124 Minutes
Release Date: April 1999
Genre: Comedy

*Also starring: Cate Blanchett, Angelina Jolie, Jake Weber, Vicki Lewis, Kurt Fuller

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

TV and movie screens are overloaded with police dramas because cops lead exciting and dangerous lives. Yet no film- maker before now has dramatized the career of air traffic controllers, who work in a profession that ranks along with high-school teaching as among the most stressful. Each day, thousands of people entrust their lives to the judgement of these brave people, who burn out so briskly that for some their most prominent fantasy is chucking their jobs at big city airports and transferring to small-town landing strips that handle two or three flights a day. I recall sitting in the waiting lounge at Narita airport outside Tokyo, gazing at planes coming in at the bewildering rate of one per minute. Only then did I appreciate the guys behind the scenes who were directing traffic only by the blips on their radar screens, barking orders throughout the day so that a major city can play host to hundreds of flights in a 24-hour period without experiencing a crash--ever.

Mike Newell, who received great plaudits for his skills in directing the delightfully comic "Four Weddings and a Funeral," puts his talent to work in a comedy-drama filled with fast talk, hip exchanges, moments of melodrama and no small among of sit-com exchanges. The film is so engagingly offbeat for a commercial studio feature that you await a concluding payoff, praying like the passengers on the descending planes that this time around, Hollywood would not compromise. Don't expect too much. The final half hour of what could have been one of the more challenging studio movies of the year is so out of character, so sappy, silly and unbelievable, that you'll wonder what sort of audience Newell had in mind: the type that regularly patronize the more intimate and challenging indies; or the category that go for the saccharine genre that helps make daytime TV a vast, though well-populated wasteland.

The good news is that John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton can both play unconventional roles: pitting them together in conflict keeps the movie flowing, crackling with tension and technique for most of its two-hour run. (Thornton, in fact, was the recipient of the Best Support Actor Award from the Online Film Critics Society in 1998 and Cate Blanchett, who performs in the role of Cusack's wife, received OFCS' Best Actress prize the same year.)

Newell, using a screenplay from Glen and Les Charles (which includes some scenes reminiscent of the TV megahit "Cheers," also by those writers), fills the opening displays with a field-trip-eye view of the work done by the harried controllers. They speak so rapidly to the pilots that you may wonder how the poor fliers from countries with non-Romance languages understand a word. Their conversations with one another are at least as rapid, and like cops and firemen, they form buddy-buddy attachments so strong that they go together to bars after work and invite one another to their backyard barbeques. When Russell Bell (Billy Bob Thornton) is introduced to the crew as its new but highly experienced and recommended employee, the controllers think of him as weird. He is a mysterious fellow who hardly speaks and is known as a cowboy who once stood in the path of a landing 747 to experience the effect of a backwash--which had the outcome of tossing the man into the air and flinging him swiftly to the ground. When Russell's sexy wife, Mary Bell (Angelina Jolie), is introduced to Nick Falzone (John Cusack), Nick's mind strays from thoughts of his sweet wife Connie (Cate Blanchett). One night, when Russell is out of town and Mary is feeling lonely, Nick invites her to an Italian restaurant where he charms her by his ability to sing. They land inevitably in her bed. What follows will threaten the lives of the pilots who depend on him, his marriage to Connie, his entire career.

While Cusack can compete with Chris Farley as a motormouth, the show-stealer is the laconic Thornton, who comes across as a New Age philosopher who is also outstanding on the job at the radar controls. His calm reaction to news of his wife's extra-marital activities is a product of his philosophy, making a scene in Colorado between him and the straying husband, Nick, the most fascinating one of the story and surprisingly credible when compared to the absurd ending of the movie.

"Pushing Tin" is worth seeing because you don't often get players like Cusack, Thornton and Blanchett bouncing off one another. And you do learn quite a bit about the people you entrust with your lives each time you fly, whether domestic or international, whether Continental or Delta. Speaking of the behind-the-scenes people who never get the recognition they deserve, the movie's make-up personnel deserve mention for the job they did on Cate Blanchett, transforming her image from that of England's most famous queen to a suffering suburban American housewife. "Pushing Tin" is solid, offbeat entertainment of the sort you don't often find in heavily financed studio films.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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