It's about the price of zeal. Who pays it? Daniel longs more to comprehend than to validate the past. Lumet shows him fighting to know himself, his spite and fixations, and struggling through a grasp of his family's devastations. He becomes a sort of detective of his own life as he probes his family's saga and re-experiences his reactions to the uncommon burdens put on him by his parents' trial and execution. Through Daniel's hunt for self-discovery in his own recollections, in addition to his links with people who were concerned in his parents' case, we see from within thirty years in the life of American discord, from the Depression and WWII to the McCarthy era and the 1960s' anti-war movement. The effects of parents on children, of dogma on life, of the past on individuals, are contemplated in the saga of two generations of a family whose obsession is not success, money or love, but social integrity.
Lumet is conveying his wish to exceed the boundaries compelled by the brand of realism in Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Prince of the City, etc. Notwithstanding his concern with social matters, he never made message movies. What he favors are essentially character studies. Generally the most dramatic altercations occur between characters in the framework of the society they occupy. So his predilection guides him to political suggestions.
This is a profound, solidly felt film that enhances the central characters who partake in Daniel's revelation of himself and his bond with past and present. In a deeper and fuller way the film reconstructs the imagery and themes of the Rosenbergs' world, the hazards of an existence on the brink of romanticism, the fabled load of deeds much smaller than their penalties. Certainly the Isaacson most undone by such things is Daniel's younger sister, Susan. Lumet opens the film with Susan's badgering of Daniel and her foster parents on the good radical political usage of her parents' trust fund, following succinct fourth wall breakage of Daniel's callous explanation of the electrocution procedure and Lumet's ensuing cut to 1960s political protests. Susan has already started to use political involvement as she previously used religion, drugs and sex, as a surrogate for comprehending her distressing need to obliterate her consciousness.
Following scenes that revert to their childhood, Daniel finds Susan's present of an old "Free Them" poster and an opened sachet of razor blades in declaration of her attempted suicide. Lumet then instantly cuts to after their parents' arrest, when Ascher, the attorney, takes the children to a rally for the Isaacsons. Abruptly cries emerge, "Here are the children," and hands appear to pass the petrified children to the platform. Little Susan shouts for her brother as they're stage-managed as political poker chips over ceremonial cries, "Free them," an omen of Susan's adult dependence. From below, Lumet draws near on the stricken faces defenseless in the squeeze of passion. Defenseless. Daniel's visit to the committed Susan happens after allusions to Rochelle's demented mother, cyclically driven mad by the struggle of her immigrant life.
This layout offers political and emotional background for Susan's psychosomatic degeneration, still trying to use her mocking humor to offset hopelessness. It's this that launches Daniel's course of turning from hostility against the world and his stand-in family, his young wife and infant son. Nowhere in the film are Paul Robeson's spirituals more poignant than throughout the siblings' trip homeward from a cruel charity shelter. Cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak's burgundy browns overshadow as, to Robeson's solemn song, Lumet draws the defenseless route through the cold backdrop. The children hold one another on traffic islands, Susan coiling into her big brother.
The triumph of Lumet's handling of Paul and Rochelle Isaacson was in illustrating American communism as another political approach which was not just customary in its environment, but in many ways important and constructive. In a first-rate scene, Paul coaches the admiring Daniel on the iniquities of DiMaggio's manipulation of his image and his audience through his picture on a cereal box. Ultimately, the film ends by ironically observing the romantic modern goodness of the late 1960s that asserted that the revolution had unfolded and that thus things inevitably were better than when the Isaacsons met a gruesome outcome at the behest of a thoughtless judicial system. Daniel closes the film possibly reflecting on that exact question, not predictably undertaking a basic extremism, a comfortable Marxist unity with his general past. Lumet's political and moral vision is seldom so basic.
Apparently, all concerned claim this movie has nothing to do with the Rosenberg case. This is a ludicrous claim; what else can this movie be about? Oh, it's certainly not a completely biographical version of the story. Not even just in a "names changed to protect ourselves from lawsuits" kind of way. The Rosenbergs had two sons, Robert and Michael, and they're both still alive. They also went the sensible route of filing a Freedom of Information Act request to get information from the government about their parents' case. However, since there aren't a lot of married couples who have been executed for espionage, and since the circumstances are extremely similar, what else can this be about? Anyway, as time goes by, fewer Americans even know who the Rosenbergs were. That ignorance of our own history strikes again. Not that this movie made enough of an impact on culture that it would remind anyone of anything.
Daniel Isaacson (Timothy Hutton) has just found out that his sister, Susan (Amanda Plummer), has attempted suicide. He firmly believes that this is mostly to do with their parents' execution on espionage charges when he and Susan were children. Paul (Mandy Patinkin) and and Rochelle (Lindsay Crouse) were young Communist activists in love, and they were raising their children with Communist ideals. Of course, the problem there is when they were doing it. Paul comes home from the War and runs a little radio repair shop, and even as time passes and Communism becomes a scarier and scarier word to the average American. They are tried, convicted, and executed for "giving the Soviets the secret of the bomb." Years later, after he is a husband (to Phyllis, played by Ellen Barkin) and father, Daniel still can't come to terms with what happened to his parents. Susan tells him how proud she is to be the daughter of her parents, but it may be what has caused her problems.
Or it may not. Susan is never developed much as a character except inasmuch as she is shown to be completely dependent on her brother. She's definitely shown to be freaked out by what happened, in no small part because of the reactions from people at school. (There's a reason the real Rosenberg boys took their foster parents' last name.) However, we never know enough about her to know if she's traumatized by life, mentally ill, or both. Based on what we see, I lean toward both. Maybe it's more clear in the book, but in the movie, Susan is a cipher. She's someone for Daniel to project his feelings on, but really, that's everyone. Tovuh Feldshuh plays Linda Mindish, daughter of Selig (Joseph Leon), who is the man who turned the Isaacsons in. She is also the person who knows what Daniel is really looking for, and she knows she's pretty well it. He wants someone to blame, and since her father is now senile, and since she and Daniel didn't get along as children, she's it. The truth, whatever it is, won't change that.
And that's really the problem with this movie. We never know the truth, and we know that Daniel never will, either. Now, we are told, and it's true, that the idea that the Soviets "stole" the secret of the atomic bomb is a flawed one on several levels. What's more, even if it weren't, there's no reason to believe that Rosenberg/Isaacson had it or could have understood it. It doesn't take much to come to the conclusion that, guilty or not, these were not people who should have been executed for what they did. Especially given the arguable nature of "time of war." However, what Daniel is looking for, he won't find. Can't find. He's looking for someone who to pin the blame on, not just for his parents' deaths but for every wrong in his life. What's more, I think Daniel is projecting so much of himself that there isn't much to him left but desperation and regret. He imagines a life other than the one he leads, and he puts so much of himself into it that he isn't living this one.
Still, Hutton is doing what he can with what he is, and so are the others. There's an extremely embarrassing scene wherein Paul lectures Daniel about wanting Wheaties just because of the baseball player on the box. He goes on about how the baseball player, I forget who it is, is no better than any other worker, because he doesn't own the team. In his case, the means of production. What's more, he's selling himself so that Daniel will want to buy Wheaties instead of wholesome oatmeal. (Ilan Mitchell-Smith, who plays young Daniel, makes the perfect expression of distaste at the very thought.) Not even Mandy Patinkin can pull off that dialogue. However, he does a fine job of playing the youthful, then not-so-youthful, idealist. Timothy Hutton carries of the intensity of a driven man, though I think he also imbues it with a sense of having forgotten what drives him. And, of course, Amanda Plummer always seems to end up playing crazy characters, so it's not anything difficult for her.
[font=Century Gothic]Directed by Sidney Lumet, "Daniel" is a powerfully resonant movie that is open-ended enough to leave it up to the viewer to draw their own conclusions which might depend on their political orientation.(So, you probably know where I stand...) While a fictional recreation of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg case told through the eyes of Daniel(giving the movie a personal depth while showing the effect even absent parents have on their children), there is also one historical incident cited, a concert Paul Robeson gave in upstate New York I read about in Howard Fast's autobiography, "Being Red," which simply depicts the intense amount of persecution in the 1950's and how brave it was to fight it.(In fact, Robeson is heard singing on the soundtrack on more than one occasion.) By jumping around in time, the movie does a great job of showing the parallels between the Old Left and the New Left, both of which were the vanguard of social activism in their day, serving as a needed reminder of why the left is so important today. And this is a movie that is activist in its own way by attacking the death penalty and showing how it has always been used against the lower classes. [/font]