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The fictionalized story of Daniel, the son of Paul and Rochelle Isaacson, who were executed as Soviet spies in the 1950s. As a graduate student in New York in the 1960s, Daniel is involved in the antiwar protest movement and contrasts his experiences to the memory of his parents and his belief that they were wrongfully convicted. Written by
Michael C. Berch <email@example.com>
Critics who fault Lumet for highlighting the characters' impressions and mindset more than their believed historical or political accuracy were ignorant of the fact that, even in our loudly, reductively politicized times, storytelling is not the same as politics or history. Lumet doesn't overlook social texture in this humanistic triumph, but he's first an artistic craftsman, fashioning his own vision of the world's dealings. Lumet does entail, in Daniel's meeting with the NY Times reporter, the potential guilt of the youth's parents. As he does throughout his work though, he looks for connotations in actions, not just social particulars. The film doesn't hinge on Rosenbergian associations and recollections but like all stories relies on our understanding of these characters' predicaments, signaling the complete human catch-22.
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.
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