A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: Pushing Tin – The 20th Anniversary


In 1999 when John Cusack released “Pushing Tin”, he was smack-dab in the middle of a career high. Coming off some of his best films: “Grosse Pointe Blank” (His Best Film), “Con Air”, “The Thin Red Line” and “The Jack Bull”. With “Being John Malkovich”, “High Fidelity” and “America’s Sweethearts” following the release of “Pushing Tin”. I’m sure like many I’ve always been a big fan of John Cusack since his small part in John Hughes classic “Sixteen Candles”, which lead to his big leading man break in 1985’s “The Sure Thing” directed by Rob Reiner. 

Between all of those great Cusack films, we’re here to celebrate one of his most underrated, unappreciated and a film that I easily consider one of his top 10 best films: “Pushing Tin”. Released 20 years ago on April 23rd, 1999. It opened #4 at the box office and grossed only $8.4 million out of a budget that costed $33 million to make. 

The movie opens with the line, “You land a million planes safely, then you have one little mid-air, and you never hear the end of it”. No surprise that it wasn’t shown as an in-flight movie. Based on writer Darcy Frey’s 1996 New York Times Sunday Magazine article called, “Something’s Got to Give”, which focuses on the careers, related stress and personal lives of the unseen and little respected air traffic controllers. 

John Cusack plays Nick Falzone, an air traffic controller who safely guides 7,000 flights a day to a safe landing by servicing three congested terminals: Kennedy, LaGuardia, and Newark airports. Dealing with 80-hour work weeks and little or no rest or vacation, it’s a common occurrence for the controllers to occasionally “go down the pipes” from going nuts sitting in front of their glowing terminals and aligning the tiny flashing blips on the screens in all-important order to safely bring them to the runway. Air traffic controllers are ranked in the top 5 most stressful jobs in the world. 

The title “Pushing Tin”, comes from the slang for “moving airplanes”. The writers are Glen and Les Charles who got their start writing for shows such as “M*A*S*H” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”, the brothers honed their skills that then led them to create, produce and write for the classic ensemble sitcoms “Taxi” and “Cheers”. The Charles brothers and director Mike Newell (“Donnie Brasco”, “Prince Of Persia” and “Four Wedding and a Funeral”) offers high energy, a fascinating backdrop in the world of air traffic controllers which hasn’t been shown to this depth before on screen. “Pushing Tin” is a movie I love to the point where I used to draw the screen with the triangular blimps and pretend I was an air traffic controller. I have seen it so many times over the years and being 20 years later, it’s still one of my favorites in not just Cusack’s career but the entire top-flight cast.

Cusack is a hotshot controller who is at the top of his job, happily married to his sweet wife Connie (Cate Blanchett). He works a night shift, ingests a plateful of greasy food at the local diner, speeds at a reckless pace and always pulls up to the wrong house as his suburban neighborhood looks all alike. Then into his life comes Russell Bell (Billy Bob Thornton), a cowboy controller from out West, who gets under people’s skins. He rides a hog, needs a shave, schedules planes so close together that the other controllers hold their breaths. He’s married to a 20-year-old sex bomb named Mary (Angelina Jolie), who dresses like a lap dancer.

These four characters are genuinely interesting. Russell is an enigma and likes it that way. He seldom speaks, has tunnel vision when concentrating on a task, and once stood on a runway to see what kind of rush comes from a 747 as it takes off. His fellow controllers watch him doing this, in a video that shows him being blown away like a rag doll from the engines; when in real life, paralysis or death would result. At work, Bell just casually says of his talents, “I just move the blips around so they don’t hit each other and then I go home”. 

Cusack is as good and enjoyable as he has ever been and makes his character believable. Billy Bob Thornton who’s talent as an actor over the years has made him a chameleon-like performer and is also quite good in a performance that’s refreshingly subdued for such an otherwise competitive character.

Winning the award for the most amazing performance transformation from one film to the next. Cate Blanchett wins for astonishingly transforming from one role to another, from her Oscar nominated turn in “Elisabeth” to convincingly and perfectly playing the increasingly distraught Long Island wife in “Pushing Tin”. 

Meanwhile the always compelling and stunning Angelina Jolie who had just come off her critically acclaimed role in HBO’s “Gia”, would receive her first Oscar nomination and win the same year as “Pushing Tin” for her role as a mentally ill patient in James Mangold’s “Girl Interrupted”. Jolie had just shaved her head for her role in “Gia”, which required her to wear a wig during the filming of “Pushing Tin”. It is also where Billy Bob Thornton and Angelina Jolie first met and fell in love and were married for 4 years. “Pushing Tin” also gave me one of my earliest celebrity crushes for Angelina Jolie. 

Billy Bob Thornton and John Cusack (who will reunite 6 years later in Harold Ramis’ “The Ice Harvest) attended real air traffic control schooling in Toronto as part of their research for the role. It paid off as they look like seasoned air traffic controllers. “Pushing Tin” ends with a big climax, a bomb threat called in to the controllers tower during a blizzard. Even playing like a Western standoff, with Nick and Russell staying in the building as it is evacuated, so every plane in their airs can land before they abandon their posts. Both the climax and the air traffic controlling sequences builds tension, tempers it with slight humor, and then builds more tension.

The film is aided by some great visual-effects shots of 747’s almost colliding. Newell moves the electronic blips dangerously close to each other on screen by moving the camera into Cusack’s eye and turning the entire 2.35:1 widescreen into the scope radar making you feel as your right there guiding the planes. Newell also gives you the view from inside the controllers module as we watch Cusack and Thornton from under the screen in a resourceful use of CGI effects, all the while the controllers voices give instructions to pilots like airspace auctioneers.

Mike Newell has created a fast-paced, rambunctious comedy with lots of style. His versatility is one to amaze and impress as he builds huge tension, which “Pushing Tin” has an effervescence about it, largely due to the smart writing, the visual direction and even smarter casting. “Pushing Tin” is one to put on your radar. If you have never seen it, please go and seek out the underrated Cusack gem. 

•”Pushing Tin” is available on DVD and digital, yet to be released on Blu Ray



About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros is the movie critic for Maui Watch. He lives on the beautiful island of Maui and is also a member of the elite Hawaii Film Critics Society and an active cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, where his Grandfather started his love for the movies.

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