FOR PUSHING TIN, in which John Cusack and Billy
Bob Thornton play rival air-traffic controllers, we asked a real
air-traffic controller, a 32-year-old woman who preferred not
to be identified, whether the film lives up--or down--to the occupation
TW: Where do you work?
ATC: I'm at Albuquerque's En-Route Traffic Control Center,
where Billy Bob Thornton's character is supposedly from. We keep
you safe when you're way up in the stratosphere.
TW: Pushing Tin was inspired by a New York
Times Magazine article by Darcy Frey, called "Something's
Got to Give," about the hard-core macho controllers at New
York TRACON (Terminal Radar Approach Control). Have you read it?
ATC: Yeah, it was pretty intense. But I'll tell you what
I heard recently about that, which is that when Darcy Frey was
interviewing the controllers, they were embellishing and pulling
his leg a lot--pretty much screwing with the guy. The whole thing
was kind of a joke, and Frey didn't get it. That's the inside
TW: Do controllers really use the term "pushing
ATC: I don't think I've heard anybody say that since I've
been in the building--for the last seven years.
TW: Don't you have a jargon?
ATC: Well, there's a plane called an air bus--we call 'em
"scare buses," because their climb performance is pretty
good up to a point, and then they just dog it.
TW: In the movie, planes seem to be at the mercy of
controllers. For example, when Cusack's freaked out because he
thinks his wife Cate Blanchett is sleeping with Thornton, it's
as if passengers might die. Is that realistic?
ATC: Not really. Most planes have on-board equipment called
TCAS (Traffic Collision and Avoidance System). If we were to mess
up traffic because we were paranoid about cheating spouses or
something, the plane would still get an automatic warning to climb
TW: So the air is a lot safer than it's portrayed in
ATC: Oh God, yes.
TW: In the movie, when Cusack almost causes a crash,
they say he "had a deal." Is that the actual lingo?
ATC: Yes. It's not a crash, it's an operational error where
you lose standard separation. Even if two planes are 4.7 miles
apart instead of 5, it's a deal.
TW: After Cusack's "deal," he goes straight
back to the scopes.
ATC: That's not how it works. When you have a deal, you
have to go through a lot of training and follow-up training, and
you have to get recertified. They don't just put you back to work.
TW: Do you really talk like auctioneers from outer space?
ATC: We learn to talk fast, but it's a prescribed phraseology;
it's pretty standard. We also learn to alter our voices for maximum
effect. My husband uses a disc-jockey voice. I use my deepest,
most sultry voice. If I need a pilot to listen to me, it helps
if I do a Kathleen Turner impression.
TW: At restaurants, do you use your controller voice
to order food really fast, like Cusack and his buddies do?
ATC: No, that's stupid. Those guys are screwed up.
TW: Pushing Tin's characters are mostly men,
and their suburban housewives seem to exist solely to help the
men de-stress. Is that accurate?
ATC: No, and the fact that the movie only has one female
controller (Vicki Lewis, from News Radio) is very unrealistic.
Where I work is 30 or 40 percent women. We're a very incestuous
group--there's a lot of husband-and-wife teams. There are men
with housewives, but there isn't that macho attitude. It's not
like guys come into work swingin' it around.
TW: Both Cusack and Thornton drive dangerously fast as a result of job stress. Are controllers really road maniacs?
ATC: There's a lot of minivans in the parking lot. Actually,
we just had a guy out here get a Dodge Viper. All the guys go
out and look at the Viper and get hard-ons. I suppose they'd race
him if they could, but they've all got minivans.
TW: In Pushing Tin, Thornton is married to Angelina
Jolie, a stunning 20-year-old who's all lips and nips. I mean,
they purposely frame shots around those features. Do any of the
men at work have astonishingly sexy young wives?
ATC: Yeah, look at me! (laughs) Uh, no.
TW: Cusack and Thornton become ridiculously competitive
about wives, work, driving, basketball free-throws, even the ability
to withstand pain. It's sorta like Top Gun in suburbia.
Do rivalries really spring up between top controllers?
ATC: We do play fantasy football. We also have a foos-ball
table in the back. Hmm...Oh yeah, recently we had a fist fight
in the TV room because there were two guys fighting over the remote.
It was between bass fishing and NASCAR racing.
TW: Pushing Tin turns out to be more about infidelity
in marriage than about air-traffic controlling. Then later it's
about how demoralization affects competence. Do you find that
your job performance wanes when things are going badly in your
ATC: Personally, when I'm having really bad problems, working
the traffic is a welcome escape. Other people, things might eat
at them. If that's happening, you can ask to work a slower sector.
TW: When the infidelity situation gets especially grim,
Cusack is on a plane and tries to force his way into the cockpit
because he's paranoid that Thornton, who's on the ground controlling,
will make the plane crash. It's played for laughs. Realistic?
ATC: No. They would land the plane as soon as possible,
and Cusack would be immediately arrested.
TW: A few more realism questions: Just when you think
Pushing Tin has forgotten the subject of air-traffic controlling
altogether, there's a convenient bomb threat and the two main
characters must stay and get all the planes routed. Is this likely?
ATC: We have contingency plans, and we'd never make two
controllers stay behind. We'd just turn our air space over to
several other centers.
TW: At one point, we see Thornton stand behind a landing
747 so he can be blown away by its "wake turbulence."
He flies through the air like a scrap of paper picked up by a
twister, then falls down laughing. Is this typical controller
ATC: If you went onto the runway you'd get arrested. In
any case, that's not even how wake turbulence works--it's in the
air. Once it hits the ground it just dissipates.
TW: Then there's that scene where Cusack and Thornton
come to terms with their tension by experiencing "wake turbulence"
together. Afterwards, they lie ruffled in the dirt like two lovers
after a romp. Would you say this was some form of subtextual homosexual
release? Or were they just being manly and experiencing the forces
ATC: Definitely the first one. (laughs)
TW: At the end of the movie, one of the controllers
refuses to route a plane unless his estranged wife, who is on
board, will agree to have dinner with him. They take her into
the cockpit, and he sings to her. What would happen if a controller
actually did this?
ATC: She can't go into the cockpit! The plane would send
a secret message down to their operations, who would then call
the facility and tell them what was going on, and they'd pull
the guy off the sector. He'd get fired and they'd arrest him.
TW: So controllers can't communicate with loved
ones who are aboard a plane?
ATC: Actually, there have been times when I've mentioned
to the pilot that my mom or dad was aboard the plane, and they've
given them extra peanuts.