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Metro Pulse Delayed Flight

Pushing Tin experiences some narrative turbulence in moving from magzine article to movie.

By Coury Turczyn

MAY 3, 1999:  Darcy Frey's "Something's Got to Give" is one hell of a story. Published in the New York Times Magazine on March 24 1996, it'll raise goosebumps, make your scalp itch, and form a small knot of worry in your stomach—especially if you're taking a flight any time soon. It reveals in-depth a world that not many people are familiar with: the occupational agonies of air traffic controllers.

The most common picture we have of air traffic managers is one of brush-cut fellows in crisp white dress shirts calmly gazing at radar scopes and occasionally telling a pilot that he's cleared to land. In reality, they're often an overstressed lot who "curse and twitch like a gathering of Tourette sufferers, as they try to keep themselves from going down the pipes." The pipes in question are the ones that lead to a nervous breakdown, when a controller suddenly loses "the picture"—his mental strategy for keeping the planes from colliding as they approach the airport—and helplessly watches as the little blips on the screen drift further and further off course, his mind a blank.

And, of course, Frey's article is chock full of near-collisions, of dazed controllers quivering on the floor, of practical jokes gone too far, of operational errors ("deals") that go unrecorded lest a controller get fired. "As soon as they sit down at the scopes," Frey writes, "they are at the mercy of lousy equipment, absent-minded pilots, reckless colleagues, bad weather or maybe just the traffic getting heavier and heavier, like a hand constantly pushing at them from behind."

Makes you want to check out some train fares, doesn't it? For producers, it inspires an entirely different reaction: "Let's make a movie out of it!" Legend are the tales of reporters getting six-figure-plus options on stories they've written, with nary a film actually getting produced. But in this case, not only did Frey really earn the pay-off, but the movie got made. Sadly, though, Pushing Tin isn't nearly as focused, gripping, or scary as its source.

John Cusack stars as Nick Falzone, a control freak who works at New York's Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON)—one of the busiest such centers with up to 7,000 flights a day. He's the ace, able to whip off commands to multiple pilots like a chef tending to many, many boiling pots. He and his pals at TRACON are wound very tight indeed, and Nick is so wrapped up in juggling flights that he barely devotes any attention to his wife (Cate Blanchett) or their kids. But he likes the fact that he's the best at what he does, whatever the cost. Unfortunately, his sense of self-satisfaction takes a direct kick in the can when new controller Russell Bell (Billy Bob Thorton) shows up; he's better. This fact sends Nick into a downward spiral of Alpha-male competition with Russell, resulting in some fiercely bad behavior.

Written by Cheers veterans Glen and Les Charles, Pushing Tin could have used a good editor to pick a particular focus for the story. At first, it seems to be an exposé of the air traffic controller milieu, not unlike the article. Then Pushing Tin becomes a study in male machismo, as Nick goes to desperate lengths to continue believing he's number one. After that, it dabbles in the repercussions of infidelity. And then later there's the bomb threat. Oh, and Nick's search for personal meaning. While individual scenes are certainly amusing, they don't seem to add up—the narrative thrust keeps meandering about until it finally just peters out. In the hands of a director like, say, Robert Altman, all these different story threads could've been woven together into an intriguing picture; with Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco) at the helm, it's more like a patchwork quilt.

Of course, when you've got two great talents like Thorton and Cusack, this shouldn't be a problem—just stick 'em on the screen and let it rip. While their acting styles couldn't be more different—Thorton immerses himself into his role, while Cusack plays very likable variations on Cusack—this should work to the movie's advantage since their characters are opposites. But the movie drifts away from their competition so often that the friction gets lost—and Cusack isn't able to carry the movie alone, though it finally turns out that he was supposed to all along. It's not until the conclusion finally makes its appearance that you realize, "Ohhh, this movie's about Nick!"

Generally entertaining, Pushing Tin is no mid-air collision; but if you want the real story, pick up the Times Magazine article.


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