Eyes in the Sky
Until it hits sitcom turbulence, the air-traffic comedy "Pushing Tin" flies high
By Noel Murray and Jim Ridley
MAY 3, 1999: Pushing Tin is a comedy about air-traffic controllers, a narrow cinematic genre that includes such prestige projects as Summer Rental and Modern Problems. The difference is that Pushing Tin is actually about air traffic controllers--their skills, stress, and sex lives--rather than being one of those comedies where the job is just a source for a few jokes before the wacky plot kicks in.
John Cusack plays Nick Falsone, nicknamed "The Zone" because of his ability to shuffle incoming planes without getting rattled. Billy Bob Thornton is Russell Bell, a newcomer to the hectic Jersey command center and an even smoother operator than Falsone. Both Cusack and Thornton are quite good as ultracompetitive men, unwilling to show weakness either on the job or in a free-throw contest. Even more intriguing are Cate Blanchett and Angelina Jolie as their wives. Blanchett, far removed from her Oscar-nominated turn in Elizabeth, sports skin-tight jeans and a Jersey accent; she gives Connie Falsone the anxious expression of a housewife with too much spare time. No one in the cast, though, can hold a candle to Jolie, whose too few scenes as the hard-drinking, elusive Mary Bell send Pushing Tin into an eccentric orbit.
The vivid performances come as no surprise, since Pushing Tin was directed by Mike Newell, whose specialty is keeping ensemble casts cruising along safely (as in Four Weddings and a Funeral and Donnie Brasco). Although he's been less acclaimed for his visual sense, his style here isn't just appealingly uncluttered, it's actually exciting. The clich in films about high-strung professionals is to have the hero spout unfathomable jargon while his friends stand back and nod, as if to say, "This guy's good." Newell cleverly shows us what makes these guys good by zipping inside their radar screens and showing us the planes as the controllers see them--as dropping blocks in some high-stakes game of Tetris. When the whistle blows, this hectic worldview informs the way the controllers handle their private lives, from driving a car to solving domestic problems.
As long as Pushing Tin stays near the control tower, the film is a pip, fast and funny. Then Nick takes an interest in Mary and worries that Russell might retaliate with Connie, and the film loses much of its momentum. The literal cockiness of the two male leads, so fresh at the outset, becomes little more than a premise, an excuse for hoary romantic-comedy routines.
Pushing Tin is based on a magazine article by Darcy Frey, whose typically incisive reportage provides the film with its jolting insider attitude. The screenplay is by Glen and Les Charles, the creators of Cheers, who supply plenty of snappy dialogue but seem locked in sitcom beats. The amped-up naturalism of the film's first hour gives way to contrived misunderstandings, big gestures, and catchphrases. By the third time Blanchett tells Cusack she's left him casseroles in the fridge, the joke has become a groaner. Once is a trait, twice is a quirk...and quirky comedy is lazy comedy.
There's too much original and gripping about Pushing Tin to dismiss it completely. (Heck, Jolie's 15 minutes of screen time are worth the full admission price.) But it's certainly not up to par with another "tin" movie, Barry Levinson's Tin Men, which has almost the same plot but exhibits far more nuance. Levinson's hustling salesmen followed their instincts to the end, and the director wasn't afraid to leave them with empty pockets. Newell's film resolves too much of the chaos inherent in his characters' lives. Maybe that's because he's stuck with a script by two guys who have been trained by TV to greet the closing credits with a happy face.
The awful truthWhen commentators showed up on TV last week to blame the high-school massacre in Littleton, Colo., partly on The Basketball Diaries and Doom, they seemed as deluded about fictional violence as the teenage killers, who imagined themselves the heroes of their very own revenge-fantasy video game. The killers, in robbing their classmates of humanity and reducing them to targets, may have seen violence as strictly figurative. The commentators, on the other hand, seem to see art as strictly literal. By their token, the makers of The Basketball Diaries, Natural Born Killers, and other controversial works were not simply critiquing, exploring, or even exorcising latent fantasies of blood and murder. They intended the viewer to follow suit.
You have to assume a lot of malice and malevolence on the filmmakers' part to accept this claim--not to mention a command of cinema I don't recall anywhere in The Basketball Diaries. What worries me more is how our sweet tooth for entertainment now shapes and defines the way we understand the world. In reporting and documentary filmmaking, entertainment is a crutch that helps us make sense of the disorderly, a sweetener that helps us swallow truths that are otherwise unpalatable. Yet any such sweetening is bound to trivialize as much as it illuminates--hence the flood of Littleton stories that fall into predictable patterns, divide the world neatly into heroes and villains, and assume understanding long before any such thing is possible.
These issues are echoed in The Last Days, a harrowing and essential Holocaust documentary that nonetheless shows how inadequate the terms of entertainment are to the task of addressing the unfathomable. The director, James Moll, focuses on five Hungarian survivors of the Nazis' accelerated extermination efforts in the last year of World War II. Their stories and experiences in themselves are horrifying; when coupled with ghostly but unflinching archival footage, they provide a record of inhumanities that defy comprehension--a direct rebuke to the swine who claim the Holocaust never happened.
Unfortunately, the movie comes equipped with a Hans Zimmer score that weighs in at all the wrong moments; it's an insulting touch that tells the audience how to react--let alone that a reaction is demanded, as it would be in an action thriller. The score makes it too easy to view the footage at a distance, as something that has been processed and packaged. And while the survivors' postwar stories are inspiring, they end the film on a note that's too comforting for the harsh truths that precede it.
Even so, it's the surreal, unmanageable details that haunt you: an Auschwitz doctor's polite but cagey evasion of a survivor's questions about medical records; an American death-camp liberator's remorseless encounter with a German officer; the gut-wrenching footage of emaciated survivors, which renders commentary as useless as tears. You can't watch these scenes and set them aside with some fake understanding of the complexities of the horror, as too much entertainment-derived news coverage makes possible. Instead, in such moments The Last Days hints at mysteries of human nature so deep and dark they're impossible to deny, to dismiss--or to forget. Kudos to Regal's Green Hills Commons 16 for showing it, and for showing it now.
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