Movies We Like
One of the lost near-great films of the '80s by a major director and writer remains mostly buried, but is due for a major reconsideration. Daniel, directed by Sidney Lumet with a script by E.L. Doctorow (Ragtime) based on his own novel, The Book of Daniel, got no love in its day and has received only a compulsory bare bones DVD release since. An easy description would be what happened to the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the real life Jewish couple who were railroaded by the US government and executed for being Soviet spies: a case that reeked of paranoia and anti-Semitism. Doctorow has created a story from pure imagination with the fictional Paul and Rochelle Isaacson sitting in for the Rosenbergs, who had two sons in real life. Doctorow's couple instead have a girl and a boy, Susan and Daniel, played by the fascinating Amanda Plummer and Timothy Hutton (a few years from his Oscar-winning, star-making performance in Ordinary People.) But instead of just being a character study, it’s also a history lesson in post WWII American radicalism, as Daniel, now a young man tries to understand what happened to his parents. As the 1980s were not a great decade for liberalism on film or in real life, spiritually and timeline-wise Daniel sits perfectly between Warren Beatty’s masterpiece, Reds, and Lumet’s own Running On Empty.
The Isaacsons were the classic NY liberal family, children of immigrants, with generations all living under one roof. Paul (Mandy Patinkin), a proud WWII vet and Rochelle (Lindsay Crouse) are naïve in their trust of the “American way,” taking part in causes, meetings and marches that usually involve their children, including free Paul Robeson concerts. (His deep voice fills most of the film's soundtrack). The film knocks back and forth from the '40s to the '50s as the couple grows more radical and eventually are arrested (for something having to do with atomic secrets, but clearly more to do with their outspokenness), and then to the late '60s as the orphaned but now adult Daniel and Susan adjust to life. Susan has become a hippie rebel open to any cause and eager to use her family’s street cred to advance it; a few years later, all that passion leads to a nervous breakdown and being institutionalized. Daniel, in the mean time, has grown into a coolly bearded and intensely angry young man with a wife (a young and adorable Ellen Barkin) and eventually his own kids whom he seems to ignore. Susan’s mental health issues lead him to finally begin exploring the mysteries of why his parents were punished so extremely.
As a mystery and even a character study the film is murky; Lumet and Doctorow go for subtlety at the risk of no real dramatic arc taking hold, while the film's patchwork timelines stop any real character connection from breaking through. But that said, the individual moments are enough to totally captivate and individual scenes play out beautifully. While Hutton and Plummer bring a fully impressive Actor’s Studio intensity to their work, it’s the brief memories of their parents' past that haunt the audience, and Patinkin and Crouse deliver powerhouse performances (as does Ed Asner as their lawyer). A scene where a busload of lefties is attacked by brutes is savage and a late scene detailing their executions is heart wrenching. Both are as memorable as any cinematic moments to come out of the decade, but the film was totally ignored (while ironically the book was a hit and this was Lumet’s follow-up to his award darling, The Verdict). Perhaps the film was too heavy for audiences in ’83 who wanted pure escapism or maybe, since this was in the midst of Ronald Reagan mania and the greed decade, audiences (and critics) were just not interested in the depressing tale of Jewish activists. But thirty-something years later the film still hasn’t gotten any attention. The DVD and Blu-Ray are just as minimal as the Isaacsons themselves. It would be very satisfying to one day see a film like Daniel finally get its due respect.