- Movie Rating -

Daniel (1983)

| August 26, 1983

I wonder if Daniel might not have come into being if Ragtime hadn’t been so successful.  Both are films based on the works of E.L. Doctrow, and both must have been difficult to adapt because Doctrow is an author who is very adept at meshing history and fiction without making it a dry wall of “historical fiction.”  In his books, he create a fiction within the history that feels organic.  On the screen that’s harder to do.

Such is the case with Daniel, a fictional account of the legacy of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the infamous couple executed by the United States government for selling atomic secrets to the Russians, and the fate of their children.  Here, director Sydney Lumet alters things a bit and the Rosenbergs become fictionalized as Paul and Rochelle Isaacson (Mandy Patinkin and Lindsey Crouse).  The movie portrays the couple with a certain compassion but never really gets down to the business of whether or not they were actually guilty – and that’s a problem because it alternates their story with the legacy of their children who are trying to come to grips with what happened to them.

The point of interest is that, yes, the couple was executed but the story moves back and forth to show who Paul and Rochelle were and what happened to them while, in the present day, showing how their son Daniel (Timothy Hutton) searches for the truth about them.  I was more interested Paul ideas, about the philosophies that lead to radical thinking.  One of the flashbacks shows Paul working in his radio repair shop teaching young Daniel (Ian Mitchell-Smith) lessons about the misrepresentation that comes with capitalism, that a box of cereal lies to him when it subconsciously suggests that if he consumes it, he will be big and strong like Joe DiMaggio, in spite of the fact that DiMaggio is no better or stronger than any working man in a factory or repair shop.  

This period is recreated with loving care, a sense of trying to capture the spirit of leftist politics in the 1930 and 40s, illustrating what would later be ground up under the boots of Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Commission.  And while I admire the attempts to get some of that spirit in the Isaacson’s children, I never really felt it.  I give credit to the performances of Hutton and Amanda Plummer as his sister Susan, but I never felt the meshing of the two periods.  In the book, the third-person narrative of Daniel slipping into a first-person narrative gave a bit of confluence to how he saw himself in conjunction to his martyred – or “martyred’ – parents, but here it seems to be two different set pieces.

For me, the story splits so far down the middle that I never found the union.  I was more interested in the parent’s story.  Their story is the Rosenberg’s story and I was more interested in a study of how and why they did what they did.  The philosophies presented here, especially by Paul, give some indication of what led to their decisions to pass atomic secrets to the Russians and I was interested in that.  But Lumet is more interested in what such a legacy leave for their children.  It’s a legacy that, frankly, I wasn’t so interested in.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1983) View IMDB Filed in: Drama