Flying HighBy Francisco J DeLaTorre
Directed by Mike Newell
Written by Darcy Frey and Glenn Charles
With John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Cate Blanchett, Angelina Jolie
Silly movies are good for sanity. After seeing a gaggle of Oscar nominees, special effects vehicles, and movies that take themselves far too seriously for their own good, we need simplicity. Pushing Tin offers just that: sparse (and below average) special effects, light-heartedness, and an above average script that really just makes you feel good.
John Cusack, as cute as ever, plays Nick Falzone (a.k.a. The Zone), hot-shot air traffic controller. He enjoys his job: despite its brutal stress level, he does it well, impeccably lining up the landing planes, and he carries himself with a confidence that is part “I’m The Zone, air traffic controller extraordinaire,” part “I’m John Cusack and I’m damn cool.” He has a wife (hilariously played by Cate Blanchett) who loves him and two children. Enter Russell Bell (Billy Bob Thornton). Bell is a highly recommended psycho-genius air traffic controller who has worked all over the country. Bell is the one who once stood beneath a landing 747, allowing the wake turbulence to toss him through the air not so much like an abandoned rag doll. Bell brings a wooden chair to work and wears a feather in his headset. Bell is married to irresistible Mary (Angelina Jolie, the lip goddess from Hackers). Not surprisingly, Nick is threatened by Bell’s presence, and the movie takes a turn, becoming a contest of masculinity and sexual one-upmanship.
This plot is admittedly simplistic; a bunch of guys butting heads to see who wins the testosterone trophy. However, throughout the film’s two hours, it twists and turns in remarkably unpredictable and satisfying ways, and keeps the audience on its toes the entire time. Thankfully, we never tire of these twists, because each is not only refreshingly unexpected but also masterfully combines drama, suspense, and humor, rarely giving the audience time to recuperate in between.
The film’s main strength is in Nick’s sharp wit and his interactions with his coworkers and with the fast-paced environment of the workplace. The writing here is exceptional, breathing life into the characters and giving them definition in and out of the office. When the masculinity contest takes over, unfortunately, the writing falters somewhat and this seamless character-driven situation loses some coherence. Not much, mind you, but enough to be noticeable.
Another strength here is the casting. Not limiting this analysis to the four main characters, here is a group of actors that are unglamorous, crude, and somewhat obnoxious. Cate Blanchett plays off her thirtysomething New York mother/wife extraordinarily well, a marked contrast after an amazingly vibrant performance as Queen Elizabeth. Billy Bob Thornton is as plain as ever, while Angelina Jolie exists in that limbo between lusty and beautiful. The marked unattractiveness of all of Nick’s co-workers (even Nick himself, despite being played by John Cusack, loses something because of some bad, bad fashion choices) is reminiscent of a backyard company picnic. This is a tight knit group of normal people with normal problems, and this is what makes the film much more endearing.
Not to be forgotten, of course, is the score, composed by Anne Dudley, whose score for The Full Monty won an Academy Award. Here, Dudley keeps her characteristic style of simplicity, both in content and composition: not quite so lavish as a full orchestra, but distinctly more elaborate than minimalism. She manages to create an energetic yet relaxed theme that seems to characterize (or even to drive) Nick’s confidence which is almost a prerequisite of his job. This main theme changes as he does, but always retains the basic feel of the film: upbeat and confident.
What this movie lacks in its cheesy nature, formulaic plot, and uninspired visuals, it makes up for in charm, character, and simplicity. The acting is solid, the writing is decent, and the result is something like the cinematic equivalent of St. John’s Wort. It’ll brighten your day, if you let it.