Pushing Tin kicks off as a riveting dramatization of the pressure-cooker lives of air-traffic controllers. The movie takes us right inside the Terminal Radar Approach Control center, a Long Island facility that monitors the collective airspace over Kennedy, LaGuardia, and Newark airports, and for a while, at least, the sheer journalistic novelty of what we're seeing grips us in a casually exotic way.
From the outside, the TRACON center looks as anonymously bureaucratic as an insurance office. Inside, it's a sci-fi-gizmo command station. The controllers, a rowdy, bumptious, comically caffeinated crew, sit in front of gleaming circular radar screens, each of these ''scopes'' dotted with tiny, inching disks of light that represent the airplanes. Strapped into headsets that allow them to speak to the pilots, dictating both speeds and flight patterns, these hair-trigger sky-traffic cops are, in effect, copiloting the planes. The scopes may look like videogames, but if those disks move a little too close to each other, a cataclysmic collision could be seconds away.
The movie sets up a spiky rivalry between two of the controllers. John Cusack, who may never outgrow his lanky boyishness, is Nick Falzone, the center's veteran ace, a tightly strung hotshot who works at the edge of his brain. Nick lives in a cookie-cutter suburban duplex along with his sweet, spunky, very Lawn Guyland wife, Connie (Cate Blanchett, tucking in her pearly radiance), and their two young children, one of whom has just been diagnosed with an attention deficit disorder. The kid must be a chip off the old channel surfer, since Nick himself is an attention-sizzled live wire. His job is to play mental leapfrog from one situational crisis to the next.
Nick's competitor is a swaggering newcomer named Russell Bell (Billy Bob Thornton). An enigmatic daredevil who begins every shift by placing a ceremonial feather behind one ear (he's half Native American), Russell has devised his own unique system in which he deliberately brings planes within dangerously close range of each other. Thornton, weaving his eyebrows together with Zen malevolence, has never played this cool a cucumber before, and he makes Russell hypnotic in his control-board bravado. The character's risky air-traffic technique looks, at first, like a stunt, until we learn that he's merging safety and speed, moving those disks around with microballetic exactitude in order to bring each flight in on time. (He's a cowboy who serves the corporate interests.) In these early moments, the director, Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco), works with triumphant velocity and precision. The TRACON scenes are heady, exciting, and, in their nerve-jangling way, just plausible enough to goose anyone's air-travel anxieties. They also leave us wondering, Which of the two men is actually the best controller?
At a weekend barbecue, Russell arrives with his hot young wife, Mary, a punked-out alcoholic nymph who instantly has all her husband's colleagues panting in her direction. This is the first high-profile movie role for Angelina Jolie, who made a splash in HBO's Gia, and already it's clear that she's that rare thing, a sex bomb who is also a major actress. In Pushing Tin, Jolie brandishes her bangs, her crooked bee-stung pout, and her tawny ripe body with seductive abandon, yet she also makes Mary a wounded, insidious basket case. Breaking down in tears at a supermarket, she runs into Nick, who consoles her by taking her out to dinner and then, in a spontaneous act of betrayal, going even further.
Nick and Russell are now locked in a torturous showdown. Their face-off is supposed to fire up the already hellacious experience of being an air-traffic controller. The high-strung Nick is nudged right over the edge. The trouble is, it's the movie itself that turns crazy. The script, by sitcom veterans Glen and Les Charles (the cocreators of Cheers), seems to devolve into a season's worth of hokey compacted episodes, with every 15 minutes showcasing a dramatic device more outlandishly cheesy than the last, be it a bomb scare, Connie taking impromptu French lessons from Russell (and using the occasion of her father's funeral to show off her new language skills!), or, in the film's single most loony-tunes moment, Russell commanding Nick to jump into an icy stream in order to purge himself of guilt. By this point, Pushing Tin has been purged of all dramatic sense, making you wish that Newell and company had had the gumption to finish what they so enticingly started. C+