When it comes to labeling a movie, this one is kind of tricky since it's a mixture of different genres (mostly comedic and drama) with a little romance and the brief disaster itself, which has the most action in the whole movie.
Having been found guilty on all counts against him, petty pickpocket Bernie LaPlante (Dustin Hoffman) is to be sentenced to prison in a few days, but until then, he's given six days to get his affairs in order. While arguing his case to the judge (Warren Berlinger) for a lighter sentence, Bernie manages to take his lawyer Donna O'Day's (Susie Cusack) wallet and take some money from her.
As they leave the courthouse, Donna asks him if he has some of the money that she loaned him, and he counts out some of the money that he's just stolen from her. He comes up with a sad luck story and after giving her some money the kindhearted Donna lets him keep the rest, even though she knows something is off about the story.
While Bernie "teaches" his son Joey (James Madio) about life, TV reporter Gale Gayley (Geena Davis) is on a rooftop with Mr. Broadman (Edward Hermann) who's getting ready to jump. During the interview, he jumps, and her cameraman Chucky (Kevin J. O'Connor) is excited for the footage that he's captured, imaging that he'll definitely get some type of award from it.
When Gale gets back to the station, news director Deke (Chevy Chase) congratulates her on a great story, and they go over her itinerary for her upcoming trip to New York City, where she's up for a Silver Microphone Award. He tells her to enjoy her time off in the city, but she's afraid that Conklin (Christian Clemsen) another reporter at Channel 4 will cover breaking news while she's gone.
Deke then bets station owner Wallace (Stephen Tobolowsky) a couple of dollars that she'll be on the first plane back to Chicago following the awards ceremony.
After winning the Silver Mic, Gale is indeed on the next flight back to Chicago during a blinding rainstorm, while Bernie is on his way to pick up Joey so that they can go to the movies.
He's running late due to car problems and while he's stopped a few thousand feet above him, the pilot has told the passengers of Flight 104 to brace for impact due to a mechanical failure.
As the plane goes down, Bernie watches from his car as the lights from the airplanes cabin go across his windshield just before crashing. After witnessing the crash, he gets out of the car and heads over to the site in the driving rain.
From inside the plane, he hears the survivors and asks, "What's the problem, pal?" since they can't open the door. After taking off his shoes, he manages to help get the door open and through the smoke and fire the passengers begin to exit the plane and, in their panic, keep pushing him aside.
Richie Fletcher (Jordan Bond) a young boy travelling with his father (Harry Northup) asks Bernie if he'll help him look for his father who's still onboard. At first, he says no, but then after being fed up with Richie's begging, he goes into the plane and finds Gale trapped between the seats.
Through the smoke, she can't make out who he is and before helping her, he finds her purse and award which he pockets. He helps get her out of the plane and just as he's getting ready to leave, flight attendant Leslie (Cady Huffman) has him go back inside where he finds another passenger trapped (Eric Poppick) whom he rescues.
When Bernie decides to leave the crash site, he can't find his car and then notices that it's been moved, while Gale is being put into an ambulance, she sees Conklin and Chucky and tells them that this is her story and starts to report on it from the hospital.
Three hours later he manages to get to Joey's where he and his ex-wife Evelyn (Joan Cusack) argue about his being late. He tries to explain and finds out that her boyfriend, fire fighter Elliott (Don Yesso) was also at the scene when he mentions the crash.
Evelyn throws him out of the house and Joey watches him from his window leave, noticing that he's not wearing any shoes. Bernie comes back to the front door after going through Gale's purse and takes some money up to Evelyn telling him that it's a reward from earlier when they "found" a wallet in the men's bathroom.
Bernie gets a ride from John Bubber (Andy Garcia) a homeless veteran and he recounts the story of the crash and everything that he went through. He gives him one of his shoes since the other was lost and John drops him off at his job where his boss (Richard Riehle) fires him. Bernie tries to explain to him what happened, but he doesn't want to hear it.
After cleaning up, he goes to his friend Chick's (Tom Arnold) bar where he meets with some guys to sell credit cards to (mainly Gale's) and he's arrested in a sting operation.
With Gale on the story, the survivors begin to talk about the mysterious stranger that rescued them and once a million-dollar reward is offered by Channel 4, John comes forward and retells Bernie's story, while Bernie is behind bars.
Bernie's lawyer bails him out and after John's been cleaned up, he becomes an overnight sensation as Gale begins to fall in love with him.
With all of the media coverage regarding the crash, Channel 4 decides to do a reenactment of it (for ratings of course) and John doesn't want any part of it, but Gale talks him into doing it. While rehearsing her rescue, she starts to question herself about her rescuer as do a couple of other survivors.
On set, Gale gets a visit from Inspector Dayton (Kevin Jackson) and over coffee, he shows her, her credit cards and asks if she knows anything about Bernie. At first, she doesn't, but remembers that she did hear something about him.
She goes to his apartment with Chucky and while waiting for him, she finds her award tucked in the sofa cushions. When Bernie gets home, she stuns him and his landlord (Maury Chaykin) busts in telling them that John's on a ledge and wants to talk to Gale.
As she and Chucky rush out, she tells Bernie to come with them.
When they get to the hotel, she tells Conklin that it's her story and they go up to John's room and he won't come inside, so Bernie goes onto the ledge where they talk about the crash and everything else that's going on. He tells John that he can keep the glory of fame, but he wants half of the money and he'll blackmail him if he doesn't give in to his demands.
Gale later corners Bernie and even though he won't admit that it was him at the crash, she thanks him and while not spoken, will keep his identity a secret, but she tells him that he should tell his son about the accident.