Hence, I can relate to how top dog air traffic controller Nick Falzone (John Cusack) feels in Pushing Tin when he is deposed by the new guy, Russell Bell, a motorcycle-riding hot shot played with the kind of self-assured individuality Billy Bob Thornton conveys so threateningly. Of course Russell isn't just a great air traffic controller. To the Long Island society that he has just intruded, he is the renaissance man of air traffic controllers. Women find him, well, "interesting."
Half American Indian, as the lore goes, he listens to tapes to improve his French vocabulary, projects a Buddhist-like centredness, and even croons by request at Nick's favourite Italian restaurant. To add insult to injury, at the backyard barbecue where Nick annually impresses his faithful milieu by shooting the most basketball foul shots, Russell makes like Michael Jordan. At this point, just the look on Mr. Cusack's face could win him an Academy Award.
I like to think I handled my dethronement a little better than Nick does. But then, I was only 11 at the time, and Nick is pushing 40 when the sad epiphany strikes. Which is the whole point of the story. The competition that ensues between Nick and Russell is amusing, at least for a while. But be warned that Pushing Tin is strictly formula Hollywood, even if it is directed by Mike Newell, the witty chap who gaily led audiences off the beaten track with Four Weddings And A Funeral. The quasi-acerbic, semi-frothy script by Glen and Les Charles (TV's Cheers team) never seems confident of its big screen identity.
Pushing Tin wants to say all sorts of important things, but without being too upsetting or venturesome. So while we're made privy to the high-pitched freneticism that is the air traffic controllers' world, and then given a mirthful guided tour of the camaraderie and swagger their culture engenders, the plot safely retreats to romance, a little sex, some infidelity, marital harmony, and the lack thereof.
So what else is new? In Hollywood, doctor movies are about love, movies about giant monkeys are really about love, and even movies about the movies are about love. Only in Sweden are movies about love really about death.
In this case the real saga behind the radar screen is the coming asunder of Nick's marriage to Connie (Cate Blanchett) and the curious relationship Russell has with his wife, Mary, a mysterious siren with a drinking problem played by Angelina Jolie. Mr. Newell's nicely diverting but ultimately inconsequential survey of mores among this film's specific population could have been more aptly titled, "Control Freaks In Love."
There are some memorable moments, and the acting performances are nicely engaging as both sets of lovers square off to the backdrop of potential aeronautical disaster. Oh yes, the possibility of major mishap always lurks, but in an incongruous, sitcom sort of way. Things get a bit hairy when Nick and Russell, trying to show how many planes they can juggle in mid-air, engage in a contest of duelling radar screens. And later, playing dirty pool, spoilsport Nick foists his attentions on Russell's enigmatic wife. There are consequences. Yet it's hard to believe that the filmmakers are going to punish innocent airline passengers simply because an enraged and seriously demoralised Nick can't keep his petulant mind on the job. After all, this is a romantic farce and not a black comedy. That Mr. Newell nonetheless manages a surprising amount of dramatic tension from time to time is a testament to his filmmaking ability.
Mr. Cusack fashions a bit of movie magic himself. As his boyish persona vigorously tussles with a feature-length case of arrested development, he scores just enough likeability to put him in good stead; we're willing to take it on faith that Nick, despite his numerous character flaws, is worthy of redemption. And Billy Bob Thornton as his redoubtable nemesis once again projects a brand of native spirituality that hints at what must be an awesome secret power. But the true standout performance is Miss Blanchett as Nick's wife, Connie, a devoted, bleached-blonde hausfrau who takes night courses to better herself and fill in the lonely hours. The Australian actress' Long Island accent is astonishing, phenomenally identifying a whole sub-culture of blue-collar suburbanites without spilling over to parody. At a social event, commiserating the pros and cons of their spouses' high-pressure occupations, one of Connie's counterparts tellingly opines: "Hey, all I know is my Ed earned $100,000 last year and he barely made it out of high school." This little bit of sociology is probably the film's most astute ingredient.
In John Cusack's darkly capable hands (re: The Grifters), Nick's egotistical plight had potential. But Pushing Tin is a clearly commercial enterprise. And so air traffic controller Falzone's macho-man craziness is treated with little regard for dramatic credibility. A predictable crisis in the closing moments further points up the silliness. Will Nick's obsession cause an air catastrophe? Will Connie and Nick kiss and make up? Will Nick and Russell ever end their rivalry?
I won't give it away. But you might be happy to note that, in my case, Harold and I became fast friends, though I haven't seen him since childhood. Funny, though, about the power of suggestion. For a split second at the movie screening I thought I saw him. Harold "The Flash" Maltz -- now a film critic? Nah, couldn't be.