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Judgment in Berlin Reviews

Essentially a courtroom drama, JUDGMENT IN BERLIN is the true story of the 1978 hijacking of a Polish airliner and the controversial trial of two East Germans who sought to escape to the West. Martens is a West German contractor who works on both sides of the Iron Curtain and has fallen in love with East Berliner Speidel. He plans an escape for Speidel, her young daughter, and Hoenig, a friend whose children live in West Germany. The scheme calls for the East Berliners to meet Martens in Gdansk, Poland, where he will give them false documents they can use to make their way to the West. However, the police pick up Martens, and Speidel and Hoenig are forced to come up with an alternate plan. They sneak a toy gun onto their flight to East Berlin, and Hoenig uses it to hijack the plane to West Berlin's Tempelhof Airport, where they, as well as several other passengers, are seemingly given political asylum. But it's not that simple. International accords have recently been signed to prevent sky piracy, and the American and West German governments have come under pressure from the Soviets to take action. The Bonn government washes its hands of the matter and leaves it to the occupying Americans to prosecute, with an American judge presiding. The Justice Department, determined to obtain a conviction to assuage the Soviets, wants a tough judge who'll come in and get the trial over with as quickly as possible. Sheen seems to fit the bill, but the fair-minded former prosecutor proves to be more than they bargained for, demanding that the defendants, who are being tried under US law, be given every right guaranteed by the Constitution, including the right to trial by jury. Despite the objections of the prosecutors (Sinclair and Lumbly), who are, in essence, State Department mouthpieces, Sheen seats a jury of Berliners. All the defendants are acquitted except Hoenig, who is found innocent on all counts but one. Sheen, however, does not sentence him. JUDGMENT IN BERLIN is based on a book by Herbert J. Stern, the presiding judge. Martin Sheen, who is also the film's executive producer, delivers a portrayal that oozes integrity and determination. Unfortunately, a weak script and choppy, pedestrian direction by Leo Penn (Sean's father) prevent Sheen's performance and the film from becoming gripping, despite the inherently compelling nature of the real-life events. To its credit, the script succeeds in ironically juxtaposing Eastern repressiveness with its American equivalent in the prosecutors' unwillingness to accord the victims due process and in Sheen's brave refusal to allow the State Department to turn the proceedings into a kangaroo court. But on the whole, the trial and Sheen's internal struggle for justice are presented with little imagination. Most of the performances are adequate but unexceptional, though Wanamaker does an assured turn as the defense lawyer. The film's most noteworthy performance, however, is Sean Penn's. Carrying himself as if he has been physically repressed by his years behind the Iron Curtain and delivering his lines in halting English with a finely nuanced German accent, Penn presents a minutely detailed but too studied portrayal of Gunther X, so that his acting detracts from the depth of emotion he also brings to his character's heartfelt testimony. Penn, who had been sentenced to a 60-day jail term for punching an extra on the set of COLORS--a flagrant violation of the probationary sentence he received for an earlier battery charge--was permitted to delay the start of his incarceration to go to Berlin and complete his work in this low-budget production.