This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
Like an overloaded airplane struggling to lift off, the characters in "Pushing Tin'' leap free of the runway, only to be pulled back down by the plot. John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton play two air-traffic controllers who are prickly and complex, who take hold of a scene and shake it awake and make it live, only to be brought down by a simpering series of happy endings.
For at least an hour, there is hope that the movie will amount to something singular. It takes us into a world we haven't seen much of--an air-traffic control center. Controllers peer into their computer screens like kids playing a video game, barking instructions with such alarming quickness that we wonder how pilots can understand them. They use cynicism to protect themselves from the terrors of the job. One guy "has an aluminum shower in his future.'' The movie opens with the laconic observation, "You land a million planes safely, then you have one little mid-air, and you never hear the end of it.'' This movie is not going to be shown on airplanes.
Cusack plays Nick Falzone, hotshot controller, on top of his job, happily married to his sweet wife Connie (Cate Blanchett, astonishingly transformed from Elizabeth I into a New Jersey housewife). He works a night shift, ingests a plateful of grease at the local diner, is tired but content. 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 the backwash from a 747 felt like. (The controllers watch him doing this, in a video that shows him blown away like a rag doll; in real life, paralysis or death would probably result.) Thornton, who is emerging as the best specialist in scene-stealing supporting roles since Robert Duvall, is able to maintain the fascination as long as the screenplay maintains Russell's mystery.