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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>
The book that this film was based on, "The Book of Daniel" by E.L. Doctorow, shares a title with a later television series, The Book of Daniel (2006), but, save the title, has nothing else in common with that later production. See more »
In 1951, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were tried and convicted of conspiring to deliver atomic secrets to Russia during the 40s (when the U.S. and Russia were wartime allies). The trial took place in an atmosphere of anti-Communist hysteria.
Prior to their arrest, the following events took place: State Department official Alger Hiss was convicted of perjury, Senator Joseph McCarthy launched a campaign to rid the State Department of "subversives", British physicist Klaus Fuchs was convicted of spying for the Russians, Russia exploded an atomic bomb, and the Korean War broke out.
The chief prosecution witnesses were chemist Harry Gold who admitted he had never seen or known either Rosenberg, and Ethel's brother David Greenglass, a machinist working on the Manhattan project in Los Alamos, who provided the jury with details of the Rosenberg's involvement in espionage. Ethel's guilt was based solely on Greenglass' testimony that she had typed up classified secrets (this account was later acknowledged by Greenglass to be false).
In 1953, Julius and Ethel were executed after numerous appeals for clemency had been rejected. The executions caused deep divisions among the American people and the Rosenbergs were the last Americans to be executed for sabotage. Fifty years later, we are still trying to come to terms with the case.
Daniel, a 1983 film based on the novel "The Book of Daniel" by E.L. Doctorow, is a fictional account of the trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (called Paul and Rochelle Isaacson in the movie) focusing on how these events affected their children. Turning in a strong performance, Timothy Hutton plays their son Daniel, who is searching for the truth about his parent's guilt or innocence. Amanda Plummer is his sister Susan (in reality, the Rosenbergs had two sons Robert and Michael) who suffers a mental breakdown as a result of the execution, and Ed Asner portrays the Isaacson's lawyer who did his best for the parents, who are shown as self-righteous and uncooperative.
The movie unfolds in numerous flashbacks delineated by color filters (blue for current, orange for past). Lumet shows the Isaacsons (Mandy Patinkin and Lindsay Crouse) participation in protest movements and Communist Party activities and depicts their arrest, confinement, trial, and execution. The film does not make any statement as to their guilt or innocence. However, in an emotional scene with their accuser's sister, Daniel speculates that Rochelle's brother Selig Mindish (Joseph Leon) fingered the Isaacsons to protect other Party members.
Most of the film centers on the parent's relationship with the children. While showing how much the parents loved them, it also makes clear that their dedication to political causes transcended everything else in their lives (they could have been freed if they named names but their politics dictated that they would not cooperate with the FBI).
Daniel successfully captures the hysteria of the period and the suffering of the children who were shunted between overburdened relatives, children's shelters, and foster parents. In one of the most moving scenes in the film, Daniel and Susan run away from the shelter to walk the streets of New York looking for their old home, while in the background Paul Robeson sings, "This Little Light of Mine".
Though Daniel is a powerful and moving drama, the film is flawed by Patinkin's over-the-top performance, fake Jewish accents, and confusing jumps between different time periods. I also thought Susan's character was created solely to manipulate the emotions. Is Daniel is a great film? No, I don't think it is, but I do love it for its passion and for the courage it shows in bringing to life a difficult and troubling episode in American history.
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