1999, R, 124 min. Directed by Mike Newell. Starring Michael Willis, Jerry Grayson, Matt Ross, Vicki Lewis, Kurt Fuller, Jake Weber, Angelina Jolie, Cate Blanchett, Billy Bob Thornton, John Cusack.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., April 23, 1999
Operating under levels of stress that would turn ordinary men to jelly, the air traffic controllers at New York's Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) must safely guide 7,000 flights a day to safe harbor at one of the area's three mightily congested terminals -- Kennedy, LaGuardia, and Newark airports. Dealing with 80-hour work weeks and little or no rest or vacation, it's a common occurrence for the controllers to occasionally “go down the pipes,” that is, go nuts sitting in front of their glowing terminals and aligning the tiny flashing blips on the screens in all-important order, shaking, cursing, fighting in the planes one on top of each other, day after day after day. As you might imagine, their personal lives suffer. This new film by Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco), which is based on a 1996 article by Darcy Frey in The New York Times Magazine, takes a comic look at these mad airline saviors and the women who love them, and while it's a giddy, nervous ride, packed with rich, techno-speak dialogue and tense situations on and off the TRACON playing field, it also suffers from a distinct lack of pacing that brings it down, in the third act, faster than a wingless, cast-iron ValuJet. Cusack plays Nick Falzone, the hot-dogging Newark controller who's most in his element when he's stacking up late arrivals one atop the other and cramming them into nonexistent airspace, lining up the blips like geese in the New York sky or maybe rusty ducks at a shooting gallery. Quietly singing “Memories are Made of This” to himself, he conscientiously avoids any “deals” (slang for near midair collisions) and considers himself lucky to be able to go home at the end of the day and make love to his contented, Jersey-girl wife Connie (Blanchett, looking as far away from Elizabeth as possible). Nick's perfect world takes a nosedive after the arrival of transplanted controller Russell Bell (Thornton), a radar master who may be even more talented than Nick, and whose silent, Zen-like attitude toward his job only infuriates Nick more. Clad in scruffy jeans, work boots, and a leather jacket, Bell is Joe Cool of the skyways, an unflappable ode to the self, and it drives the more vocal Nick batty. It doesn't help matters either that Bell's alcoholic, lonely wife is pulling Nick away from Connie. And it surprises no one more than Nick himself when he beds her after an innocent Italian dinner one night. This act leads to a psychological game of one-upmanship that is at the core of Newell's film. How do these two divergent hotheads hold the line on thousands, millions of lives when their own home situations are so badly fractured? Written by Glen and Les Charles (of the television shows Taxi and M*A*S*H), the film has their ensemble feel all over it, but Newell's rushed pacing in the third act botches the whole film. It's a glorious mess, though, with genuine bits of comic genius strewn amidst the rubble, not unlike a plane crash in its own way. The four leads acquit themselves brilliantly -- Thornton in particular -- but Newell drops the ball midway through and fails to return to what is essentially an airborne, emotion-laden ballet. Turbulence, folks. Better buckle up.