"Who is a wise person?" asked Ben Zoma. "One who learns from others." Some of those who have the most to teach us are the difficult people in our lives — the ones who challenge us, the ones we can't stand. This theme is perfectly presented in the compelling and brilliantly acted Pushing Tin.

Nick Falzone (John Cusack) is a high-energy and quick-witted air traffic controller who "pushes tin" at New York's Terminal Radar Approach Center (TRACON). He and a motley crew of fellow control freaks handle up to 7000 flights a day zipping in and out of Kennedy, La Guardia, and Newark airports. When a tour of kids comes through the facility they are told: "Air controllers are responsible for more lives in a single shift than a surgeon in a lifetime." They are the ones who give pilots the right information to get around each other and to a safe landing. When two planes veer dangerously close to one another, an alarm goes off, and the tension in the room skyrockets.

The men and one woman who work at TRACON have different ways of handling all the stress. Some of them gather at a local bar after work. Nick returns home to his suburban house and his wife, Connie (Cate Blanchett), who is taking an art course just to keep her mind alert. Everything is in the groove until a new controller, Russell Bell (Billy Bob Thornton), arrives on his motorcycle. This unflappable cowboy has an aura of mystery about him that is appealing to women and a threat to men. There are rumors about him from other places he has worked that he is crazy and once ducked down on the runway as a 747 roared over him and sent him flying through the air. Bell is part Choctaw Indian and likes wearing one feather in his head band.

Nick is immediately unhinged by the Zen calm of this outsider. He is also intrigued by the newcomer's sexy young wife, Mary (Angelina Jolie). She sets mouths flapping at a suburban party of the workers and their wives. Meanwhile, Nick is appalled when Bell effortlessly beats his record in a free-throw competition on the basketball court. He realizes that this man has taken over center stage. At work, Bell pulls off daring moves to save time for the airline pilots and casually says of his talents, "I just move the blips around so they don't hit each other and then I go home." Unable to control his feelings of anger and insecurity around Bell, Nick breaks the one unwritten code of all TRACON employees.

Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco) directs this fast-paced psychological drama written by Glen Charles and Lee Charles. Bell pushes all of Nick's buttons. In a scene that perfectly conveys this tension, Nick tries to prove how fast he can drive but his nemesis just falls asleep during the escapade. After his entire world caves in, Falzone travels out West to meet with Bell. Together, they come to terms with the spiritual practice of letting go. Pushing Tin is a winning movie propelled by two top-drawer performances and an impressive spiritual finale.