It is well known that air traffic controllers have one of the most stressful jobs there is. So it seems odd that before now, they haven’t shown up as the subjects of a movie.
John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton break onto the screen as two interesting specimens. Both are at the top of their field, though each takes a different approach to his job.
Nick (Cusack) is extroverted and fun-loving. He has nervous tics and can’t handle driving below the speed limit. He’s an alpha-male overachiever, a grown-up kid who loves the stress and challenges of his job.
During the film’s setup, we catch a glimpse of what goes on in his mind while he’s working. The simple blips on the controller’s screen transform themselves into an active, dynamic 3-D computer simulation when he’s “in the zone.”
Once we get a feel for the fast-paced, close-knit camaraderie of the control room, the film introduces us to Bell (Thornton). He’s the new kid on the job with a killer rep. Rumors that he stood under a landing 747 to ride the turbulence turn out to be true. But unlike Nick, he’s always cool under pressure. He’s just as good as Nick, but he doesn’t wear his adrenaline on his sleeve.
Nick is thrown off-balance by the arrival of Bell. Having someone equal to him in the control room shakes him deeply, and he doesn’t know how to react. He’s jealous of Bell. He doesn’t dislike or begrudge him, but he can’t let go of the fact that someone else might be as good as or better than him.
An unspoken competitive tension exists between the two characters — mostly in Nick, but kept alive by Bell. Their tension is a spark waiting for some fuel, say three bottles of vodka and several glasses of wine, to ignite it.
Nick finds Bell’s buxom wife Mary (played by the big-lipped Angelina Jolie) crying in the supermarket with mostly vodka in her cart. She’s looking for sympathy and he’s looking to give it. Since neither’s spouse is home, the two end up in an Italian restaurant sharing lots of stories and too much wine. Nick valiantly offers to follow her home, just to be sure she gets there safely. One thing inevitably leads to another, and the two end up in bed together.
Bell finds out what happened and reacts with his usual calm. Although he’s calm, he still manages to get back at Nick by insinuating some cross-cheating with Nick’s wife. These mind games make Nick jealous and confused, as they were no doubt intended to.
The plot wanders away from its two main characters before it takes a firm shape. Just when you think the film is entirely about Nick and Bell and their wives, screenwriters Glenn Charles and Les Charles (of “Cheers” fame) introduce a horribly transparent plot device. A bomb threat is called in and the shift supervisor says “I need two” (what a coincidence) “good men to stay and man the scopes!”
After that, it’s hardly worth tracking the plot. The bomb threat clears. Nick’s wife Connie (Cate Blanchett, underused in this role) eventually learns of his infidelity. Nick’s paranoia about Bell comes to a head. There are two or three “endings,” none of which really feels like it wraps up the whole movie.
Suffice it to say everything works out in the end for everyone, after Nick undergoes a contrived catharsis that doesn’t even make sense emotionally.
Pushing Tin is borderline recommendable. With such a confused and contrived final act, the movie leaves you with a bad taste. But it can be worth the price of admission, if you’re not going for the plot.
Go because of the well-formed, well written characters. Go because of the funny, solid camaraderie of the air traffic controllers. Go because Cusack is surprisingly good and Thornton is predictably good. Go with forgiveness in your heart, save some for the ending, and have a good time.