Tension cracked with scathing sarcasm the mood for air traffic controller comedy "Pushing Tin"
As tremendously cocksure rival air traffic controllers, John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton amplify the already provokingly charged atmosphere of "Pushing Tin," a caustic, chaotic, dark comedy that takes place in the killer-stress world of the Long Island's Terminal Radar Approach Control center.
Inside this non-descript, suburban office park bunker, thousands of lives an hour depend on the cool cucumbers who line up planes for landing at Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark like so many video game blips, always under pressure to keep flights on time while preserving the safety of the skies.
So you will pardon these guys if they develop a bit of a deity complex, knowing they have that kind of dominion over billions of tons of expensive aircraft and all those people's lives.
Cusack and Thornton bring this precision craft vividly to life as Nick Falzone, the TRACON's undisputed, speed-talking ace controller and Russell Bell, the stoic cross-country transfer whose daredevil reputation has proceeded him right into Nick's competitive cross-hairs.
Friendly rivals at first, the unspoken contest slowly simmers until chest pounding gives way to practically playing chicken with 747s before these two boil over outside the control room when Russell's sauced, sex-bomb of a young wife (Angelina Jolie) throws herself at happily married Nick.
Inspired by a 1996 pressure-cooker New York Times expos and directed by Mike Newell ("Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Donnie Brasco") "Pushing Tin" presents air traffic control as an occupation of caffeinated adrenaline and demented camaraderie.
Newell -- whose versatility continues to amaze and impress -- builds huge tension simply by moving electronic blips dangerously close to each other on a screen (then moving inside the screen in a resourceful use of CGI effects) while controllers voices rat-a-tat instructions to pilots like airspace auctioneers.
When the competition starts to takes a toll on these embattled brethren, Nick crosses the line one night with Russell's wife. Russell, in turn, threatens -- ever so subtly -- that he may return the insult in kind with Nick's fake fur-and-hoop earrings Long Island poster girl spouse ("Elizabeth's" Cate Blanchett, in a fantastic departure from period drama).
"Pushing Tin" has an effervescence about it, largely due to smart writing and even smarter casting.
Cusack is buzzing with hyperactivity and playing his role with a modicum of Attention Deficit Disorder developed by working in a job that never lets you relax for even a second.
By contrast, Thornton is eerily calm and keeps mostly to himself, percolating with understated testosterone.
Blanchett and Jolie (who have both been doing fantastic unnoticed work for a few years now) follow up their recent breakout roles in "Elizabeth" and HBO's "Gia" with a pair of priceless performances as polar opposite blue-collar brides. If Cusack and Thornton weren't the exemplary actors they are, these two actresses would have absolutely stolen this movie.
Meanwhile, a hodge-podge of supporting players -- the fab Vicki Lawrence of "Newsradio" among them -- help establish the tight insider clique at the air traffic center.
"Pushing Tin" has its faults, not the least of which is its manufactured emergency climax -- a bomb threat during a blizzard. But even that plays like a Western standoff, with Nick and Russell staying in the building as it is evacuated, so every jet in their airspace can land before they abandon their posts.
But the script missteps are minor in light of the palatable and capricious tournament of anger, tension and scathing comedy in the final product. What a fun rush.