The Cusack 21: Revisiting ‘Pushing Tin’

Heading into the new year with a side project where I revisit 21 of John Cusack’s best films to see if they match my memory of how I felt about them when they came out. There’s no real reason for this besides liking a lot of these, wanting to write about them, and regarding Cusack as a somewhat underrated icon with a body of work spanning more than 30 years and multiple genres. Hoping to take on a few things like this for the fun of it.

The Idea: Directed by Mike Newell (Four Weddings And A Funeral) and written by legendary Cheers writers Glen and Les Charles, the film stars Cusack as Nick “The Zone” Falzone, a king-shit air traffic controller whose life is upended by the arrival of Billy Bob Thornton’s Russell Bell, a no fucks given, cool as ice rival controller. Angelina Jolie and Cate Blanchett are also appear as Mary and Connie, the Thornton and Cusack character’s respective wives.

How I Remembered It: Cusack was a late ’90s vision of cerebral cool in the film, regularly rocking sunglasses and a trenchcoat while blending rapid-fire quips and mischievous charm with the certain kind of confidence that comes from being very good at a very dangerous job. It all felt very much in his lane and of a period where that felt like his desired brand. The ensemble came together around him and there was a band of brothers feel with the air traffic controllers that didn’t seem forced or inauthentic. It’s not a laugh out loud comedy, per se, but it’s smartly written and glides along.

Revisitation Notes: The above is still very true, but a few specific things stick out upon re-watch.

I’ll start with the good. I love the oil and water rivalry between the Cusack and Thornton characters — they’re a great match as they try to one-up each other through a series of territorial pissings. But I really love that the first 4/5s of this film really goes in on the hazards and fragility of the male ego. Cusack’s character is sketched as this ultra-cool rockstar within the ecosystem of the TRACON building where he works, but he’s so territorial and scared of a challenge that he literally starts to lose his mind to paranoia and obsession, getting reckless at work and in his home life to the point that he basically loses everything. A fan of fucked up endings, I actually would have been quite content with the film ending on that note. But I understand that the filmmakers needed to show that Nick found his way to good with a more complete arc instead of making this all feel like a cautionary tale. Nice and tidy. But tidy is not exactly what we got. Instead, it feels like Newell and the Charles brothers pulled the ripcord at the end, having Nick seek out Russell for advice and an exercise in the art of losing control.

In Grosse Pointe Blank there’s a memorable moment where Minnie Driver’s character tell’s Cusack’s Martin Blank about something that represents a spiritual kick to the head. It’s never referenced again but it essentially comes to being throughout the third act of the film as Martin realizes what he wants and what he needs to run away from. But in Pushing Tin, they just sort of visualize the exact effort to force that kind of clarity, resulting in a dumb, effects laden shot with Thornton and Cusack spinning through the air after getting blown off the ground by the turbulence of a plane landing. And then he’s fine. Like he got a shot or took a pill. All better. No need to show him working through his shit, just a fast forward where he can be back at work and on the cusp of getting his wife back with a little sweet talk while essentially holding a plane hostage from the ground. How sweet. And that they do that moments after showing Connie (Blanchett) telling complete strangers about her plan to start fresh and stand on her own is such a disservice to that character, who had to deal with the twin devastations of finding out her father died and that her husband had cheated on her.

It’s hard to excuse the misuse of Blanchett’s talents in this film. She’s a doormat caricature of a doting suburban wife that isn’t given much of a personality of her own. Angelina Jolie is also poorly drawn as Russell’s young wife who drowns her angst in vodka tonics while spending too much time around the morally dubious Nick. At least we learn a little trivia about her while Nick sloppily woos her over dinner, but like Blanchett’s character, Mary is really just there as a prize for Nick to steal from Russell. Same as Connie is a prize to be kept in her little box by Nick. All credit to Blanchett and Jolie, who add some color to these surface characters but, the writing failed to give them adequate dimension to make this worth their time and talent.

Final Verdict: Pushing Tin remains an easy to watch and capable ’90s film for Cusack fans in pursuit of some of his best work, but the ending and characters outside of Nick “The Zone” Falzone make for a somewhat bumpy experience overall.

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