DANIEL (director: Sidney Lumet; screenwriter: E.L. Doctorow/from Doctorow’s book The Book of Daniel; cinematographer: Andrzej Bartkowiak; editor: Peter C. Frank; music: Bob James; cast: Timothy Hutton (Daniel Isaacson), Amanda Plummer (Susan Isaacson), Mandy Patinkin (Paul Isaacson), Lindsay Crouse (Rochelle Isaacson), Edward Asner (Jacob Ascher), John Rubenstein (Robert Lewin), Maria Tucci (Lise Lewin), Ellen Barkin (Phyllis Isaacson), Julie Bovasso (Frieda Stein), Tovah Feldshuh (Linda Mindish); Runtime: 130; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Burtt Harris; Paramount; 1983)
“The failure to provide some sort of payoff works against the film.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A fictionalized retelling of the true story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (changing their names to the Isaacsons and not trying for historical accuracy), who were executed in 1953 for selling atomic secrets to the Soviets. Director Sidney Lumet’s (“Dog Day Afternoon”/”Q & A”) tragic tale veers back and forth in time between the 1960s, as the Rosenberg’s traumatized children Daniel (Timothy Hutton) and his younger sister Susan (Amanda Plummer), try to cope with the loss, and the 1930s when the Rosenbergs, here called the Isaacsons, Rochelle (Lindsay Crouse) and Paul (Mandy Patinkin), became a couple and joined the Communist Party to oppose fascism. E.L. Doctorow’s 1971 novel The Book of Daniel is scripted by him. It’s unsatisfying that Lumet not only takes a neutral position throughout as to their guilt or whether they were good people, but shamelessly milks the story for tears and manages to subvert its original intentions as a probing historical document into an empty liberal diatribe against capital punishment, a polemic against McCarthyism and an unfulfilling psychological drama about reuniting with one’s parents. The failure to provide some sort of payoff works against the film. Only occasionally does it seem to get at the tragedy emotionally and its consequences on the country and the children. Its most powerful moments come from the use of the Paul Robeson recordings played periodically in the background. The filmed bombed critically and at the box office, though the director in his book Making Movies maintains this is one of the best films he ever made.
The hysterical and mentally unstable Susan becomes involved in antiwar demonstrations during the Vietnam war and joins the SDA, hoping to overthrow the government. Daniel is an apolitical graduate student who is only stirred to reexamine his parents’ lives after his sister’s attempt at suicide lands her in a loony bin, hoping if he can find the truth about his parents through doing some detective work he will be able help his schizophrenic sister and become a better person because he will get to know his parents. Daniel is helped by his supportive wife Phyllis (Ellen Barkin); his adoptive parents Robert and Lise Lewin (John Rubenstein and Maria Tucci), who don’t seem to know what to make of their adoptive children, who are always at each other’s throats; and the Isaacson’s lawyer Jacob Ascher (Edward Asner), who voices proper concern over his client’s welfare.
All I came out learning was that the children grew up emotionally crippled and that their parents got in over their heads in a movement which gave them identity and supported their idealistic hopes to make this a better world.
Peter Kihss in a review for the NY Times in 1983 states “The real Rosenberg sons wrote a book in 1975 called ”We Are Your Sons: The Legacy of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg” claiming that their parents were innocent and ”framed.” Kihss also reports there’s a new book ”The Rosenberg File: A Search for the Truth,” by Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton, which makes use of some of the 200,000 pages of documents recently released on the trial. It contends that Julius Rosenberg was ”coordinator of an extensive espionage operation.” Ethel Rosenberg, it argues, ”probably knew of and supported her husband’s endeavors.”
REVIEWED ON 3/30/2006 GRADE: C+
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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