Early on in Pushing Tin, a swotty 10-year-old on a school visit lists the joys of a career in air traffic control - - namely the high incidence of nervous breakdowns, depressive illnesses and suicides. Translate the hundreds of little blips on their screens into actual planes and it quickly becomes clear why this should be. Have a bad day as a traffic warden and people shout at you. Have a bad day as an air traffic controller and it'll be raining bodies downtown.
Not a place for the fainthearted then, and the first 20 minutes introduces a barrage of characters who are hyper on too much coffee, not enough sleep and the unshakable conviction that they are the super-smart ones, while pilots are bovine button-pushers to be herded around the sky. Ever been worried about air transport in the past? Then here's a whole new realm of paranoia to get into John Cusack nabs much of the screen time, and his character is anamalgamation of all the fast-talking charmers he's played in everything from The Sure Thing to Grosse Pointe Blank. He's in every scene, and even if you can't understand much of what he says (most of the jargon-heavy dialogue in the TRACON scenes is unintelligible), you always get the drift of his fast-patter rants.
The strong emphasis on Cusack leaves all the other actors to fight over the scraps. As the calculating, monosyllabic Bell, Thornton is a perfect opposite of Cusack's rapidly unwinding pressure-cooker character, but he vanishes for whole sections of the narrative. Similarly, Mrs Bell (Jolie) and Mrs Falzone (Blanchett) pop up only when needed.
And it's this choppiness that forms the heart of Pushing Tin's problems. Were it simply a tale about a man succumbing to the stresses of his high-tension job, the breakdown of his marriage, or his rivalry with a co-worker, then it would have had a positive narrative thrust. But it's about all of these, with jokes, incidental characters and back stories which are meant to flesh out the insular TRACON world all piled on. Ultimately, it makes Pushing Tin ill-defined and 30 minutes too long.
Pushing Tin is interesting only when the characters are under pressure. At other times, the story unravels into a mish-mash of forced bravado, dragging the film down. Fortunately, it's just about rescued by good performances.