Judge Daryl Loomis instantly assumes that films with first names as titles are all about robot kids who can fly planes.
The revolutionary minds of two generations.
On June 19, 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for conspiracy to commit espionage for their alleged role in supplying nuclear secrets to the Soviets. Their trial and death gained international attention due to widespread suspicion that they'd been victims of post-WWII anti-Communist paranoia. The truth of this case will forever be in dispute, but there is no doubt as to the mark it left on the ensuing decades of cold war. In 1971, acclaimed novelist E.L. Doctorow fictionalized this story and the generation after in The Book of Daniel. Twelve years later, he adapted his novel for Sidney Lumet's 1983 film, Daniel.
Facts of the Case
Paul and Rochelle Isaacson (Mandy Patinkin, Yentl, and Lindsay Crouse, Iceman), a Jewish couple living in post-war New York, are suddenly arrested for treason. Accused of selling secrets to the Soviets, they are convicted and executed. Daniel and Susan, their young children, must now live as orphans with a tainted name and no understanding of what their parents did. Now adults, Susan (Amanda Plummer, Freeway struggles with mental illness and Daniel (Timothy Hutton, Ordinary People) searches for the truth behind his family's shame in light of social revolution during the late '60s.
While there's no doubt that the Rosenberg case was the inspiration for the story of the Isaacsons, but there are more than enough differences to keep Daniel from becoming a veiled biography. Above anything else, this is a film about a man's search to understand his family while the Isaacson story serves as a meaty backdrop. The story of Daniel and the story of his parents are told simultaneously, with neither one playing a more important role, in spite of the title. It is only the two stories together that give a complete picture of Daniel Isaacson. The early story, instead of looking at it as a political statement, is shown through the eyes of the children watching their parents taken down in front of their eyes. By doing so, we can more clearly see the conditions Daniel grew up under and the shame that was thrust upon him for reasons he never really understood.
When we first meet Daniel as an adult, we see a bitter young man; intelligent and capable, but unable to take a stand. He watched his parents turned into villains and executed for the stand they took, is it any wonder that he's reluctant to follow suit? His sister was too young to understand. Daniel made sure to shelter her from the worst of it. As a result, however, spurred on by the tumultuous times, she sees protest and revolution as a birthright, part of her parents' legacy, and holds Daniel responsible for squandering their parents' names. Susan has idealized them, while Daniel just finds himself bitter.
In order for Daniel to move toward action, political ideals are not enough. First, he must come to terms with what really happened to his family and why. This quest for the truth becomes the meat of the picture and, in the execution, takes on aspects of a political thriller. Like many of Sidney Lumet's films, the intricacies and difficulties of family dynamics are veiled under the guise of a thriller (see also Running on Empty and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead). He skirts the line between this and family melodrama so deftly that they become indistinguishable. Daniel's quest for truth comes from a desire to come to terms with his family in his own head, not as some sort of search for justice. Finding the truth is his justice and, in so doing, is able to act in a way that feels honorable to him.
The story is mostly strong, but there are some problems between the parallel stories. Through this, however, the performances all around are excellent and totally make the film. There may be no director I've ever seen more skilled at working with actors. The natural performances he draws out, even in the most stressful circumstances, have always been something to behold. Hutton, recently coming off an Oscar bid, is very strong as the title character. He walks the line realistically between revolutionary thought and total apathy. Often, the character is a total jerk, but Hutton's portrayal makes Daniel's anger perfectly understandable. Mandy Patinkin and Lindsay Crouse play the parents with strength and dignity. They must, at once, be stalwart political organizers and loving parents. They combine the roles well, teaching their children the importance of ideals even in the face of extreme danger. Amanda Plummer is also great as Daniel's mentally ill sister, but her role seems somewhat diminished since, in many ways, she is the catalyst for change in Daniel.
Legend Films has released a bare bones edition of Daniel, but one that looks and sounds great. While there is a little grain in the print, the colors are deeply saturated and the transfer itself seems perfect. The stereo sound is also good, but unspectacular. This is a dialog-heavy film and it is all very clear. I would have loved to hear a commentary from Lumet on the film; the director is a delight to listen to, but there is nothing extra at all on the disc.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Though the two stories run simultaneously and work together exactly how they should, but the story of the younger Isaacsons is less compelling than that of the elders. The readymade drama that comes from adapting the Rosenberg story is part of why that story is better, but the film loses some of its political focus when dealing with the adult Daniel and Susan. Susan is the more politically charged of the siblings, but she's also portrayed as crazy and suicidal, which somewhat undermines the point. Daniel finds a sense of political responsibility through his parents but, where the early story deals heavily with unions and the paranoid anti-Communism of the time, the later story deals almost none with the political crises going on in their time. I suspect that the book, written in 1971, deals much more with this. While it might be a small quibble in this otherwise fine film, it does bring down the story a little.
While this may not be the strongest story Sidney Lumet has ever put to film, the performances in Daniel are very strong and believable. Daniel is both a political thriller and a family melodrama, one that goes back and forth between the two seamlessly, each making the other side more compelling. This is one of the lesser known of the great director's films, but it is a worthy film that has been given a worth release.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Legend Films
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