Published April 1, 1999
Pushing Tin, directed by Mike Newell, is a reminder that our popular culture wants it both ways. On the one hand it thrives, as entertainment has always done, on the competition of macho men to see who is stronger, smarter, quicker or more dexterous. On the other hand it feels constrained to deplore such competition — and, indeed, such a version of masculinity — as somehow not quite in keeping with the progressive, feminine spirit of our times. Thus Newell presents us with dueling air traffic controllers — the concept is not, it has to be said, a very promising one — for the sake of mere excitement and then proceeds to resolve their competition in a touchy-feely, feminized display of feelings and vulnerabilities. I don’t buy it. If they were capable of that in the first place, they never would have got into the mess it gets them out of.
The two controllers are the swaggering Nick “Zone” Falzone (John Cusack), cock of the walk among his colleagues at the busy New York control center, and the more quiet and poised newcomer from out West, Russell Bell (Billy Bob Thornton). Zone can’t bear the thought that another controller might be more nervy, or quicker to spot the possibilities on a crowded radar screen or cooler under pressure than he is. So he challenges the new guy to all kinds of competitive trials, most of which he loses, that at various times put at risk not only their own lives but those of thousands of unsuspecting air travelers. It is not easy to do this in real life and retain either your job or your reputation for responsibility and character. But in the movies you can do it simply by making everything come out all right, which most things here do — though I won’t tell you whether or not a plane goes down. It’s sort of like saying that it ain’t bragging if you can do it. And in the movies you can always do it.
Cate Blanchett plays Mrs Zone, Connie, and she is the most impressive thing about the film. Is this acting? We don’t believe for a moment that this magnificent creature is the little Italian housewife with the impeccable New York accent that she pretends to be. She would (and in fact did) seem underemployed as Queen Elizabeth I. And yet her condescension (in the old, good sense) in the role is rather touching too. There is something archetypal in her stooping to conquer such a man as Zone that makes all the more predictably feminine traits in Russell and his wife, Mary (Angelina Jolie), who seem to share secrets like a couple of schoolgirls, seem merely trivial in comparison. In fact, Miss Blanchett is almost enough by herself to make the film worth seeing — or she would be if we could see a bit more of her at the end and a bit less of the newly sensitized and feminized Zone.