In 1978, an East German waiter used a toy gun to hijack a Polish airliner heading for East Berlin and forced the pilot to land at an American Air Force base in West Germany. The best-selling book about the ensuing trial of the hijacker -- written by the presiding judge, Herbert J. Stern -- is given film treatment by director Leo Penn. The back story involves a West German contractor working both sides of Germany, who has fallen in love with a woman from East Berlin. The contractor arranges for the woman, her daughter and another man (Heinz Hoenig), who has children living in West Germany, to meet him in Gdansk, Poland, where he will give them false documents allowing them to get into West Germany. When the contractor is arrested, they must make other plans. Sneaking a toy gun on an airplane bound for East Germany, the man compels the pilot to steer the plane to West Germany, where he hopes to seek asylum and see his children. But this is the first time a hijacker has sought asylum in the west and it sets off a political firestorm. The American and West Germany governments have signed an international accord to prevent skyjackings and the Soviet government is pressuring them to prosecute the hijackers to the fullest extent of the law. The United States Justice Department wants a quick trial and hires a tough judge (Martin Sheen), who, they think, will prosecute the case swiftly and be done with it. However, the judge is more than the authorities have bargained for -- he wants the defendants to be given a fair trial and all of the rights guaranteed to them under the Constitution.