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The Boston Phoenix Fly Boys

Pushing Tin's unfriendly skies

By Scott Heller

APRIL 26, 1999:  It's a big sky out there. Or so the stressed-out air-traffic controllers bunkered down in the vicinity of New York's three major airports tell themselves, over and over, as they maneuver 7000 flights a day in and out of Kennedy, La Guardia, and Newark. Eyes watery, jaws clenched, they hunch before their instruments like little boys in front of a video game. And boys they are, cutting the tension of the job with shenanigans worthy of fraternity rush week.

Fast-talking Nick Falzone (John Cusack) is a master of this universe. No one's better at taking a jumble of planes and lining them up in a perfect vector ("like Rockettes'') and easing them down to the tarmac. Then Russell Bell (Billy Bob Thornton) gets transferred into New York's Terminal Radar Approach Control Center, a/k/a Tracon. Half-Choctaw and all Zen, Russell is a man of few words, but his reputation precedes him. Soon enough he's showing the other controllers that his gift for "pushing tin'' outdoes Nick's.

Based on a terrific New York Times magazine cover story, Pushing Tin plays for laughs the inherent insanity of the air-traffic biz, where overworked, overtired, overstimulated guys make split-second decisions that affect the lives of every flyer. The Times noted that the system has flirted with disaster since the government broke the controllers' union after a bitter strike in 1981. Pushing Tin leaves most of that out, choosing instead to get comic mileage out of the escalating rivalry between the Nick and Russell and the zany camaraderie that surrounds them. It's a feud that comes to include their wives, patient Connie Falzone (Cate Blanchett) and sad and sexy Mary Bell (Angelina Jolie).

Screenwriters Les and Glen Charles created Cheers, among other television classics, meaning they know their way around a workplace comedy. Here, neurotic behavior amounts to more than whether Sam will kiss Diane. Stress forces one of every two controllers to wash out. Others secretly hope to cause enough near-misses to be kicked upstairs. One defrocked veteran thinks he can make it back to his scopes. But the gang takes bets on whether this time around, he'll even make it through the doorway to Tracon. He doesn't. Meanwhile, the wives share their own war stories at suburban barbecues. The guys won't make decisions, the ladies complain, because they make so many on the job. But it's worth staying married to a controller, even if you're his second or third or fourth wife: his six-figure salary is plenty to support a family, with enough left over to treat the inevitable nervous breakdown.

Just as he made the world of small-time hoodlums memorable in Donnie Brasco, director Mike Newell fondly captures cookie-cutter suburbia in Pushing Tin. The film persuasively re-creates the eerie subterranean womb where the men work. Yet it's the scenes at two-bit diners or homy Italian restaurants that give the movie its heart and soul. One such place, a joint called Enzo's, is where Nick realizes he's met his match. Russell has a mean way with a love song, and even Connie swoons a little when he takes the mike.

By this point, Russell's calm under pressure is getting on Nick's frayed nerves. Then Nick runs into Mary weeping and alone in the aisle of a supermarket and they share a drunken evening together. In a few short scenes, Angelina Jolie transforms the opaque character into something special. The pieces don't quite fit -- is she really meant to be only 19? -- but Jolie's bruised charisma makes Mary more than the sum of the parts. Barely recognizable under teased blond hair, Cate Blanchett has the less flashy role as Connie. With a Long Island accent that doesn't falter, this gifted Australian actress proves she can do far more than costume dramas.

As the rivalry boils over and the controllers lose control, Pushing Tin gropes toward a conclusion, leaning on the outlandishness button a little too hard. And the ensemble remains surprisingly indistinct. Jake Weber and Matt Ross are pallid as Nick's pals. Only Vicki Lewis as the one woman controller, a bodybuilder, stands out.

"Every hour around here,'' a harried controller told the Times, "is 59 minutes of boredom and one of sheer terror.'' Pushing Tin is never dull, and it probably won't make you more afraid to fly. But you may appreciate your own dreary office just a little bit more after watching this smartly funny look at the boys crazy enough to do a man's job.

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