In The Substance of Fire, Isaac Geldhart (Ron Rifkin) is a cultured and caustic New York publisher who takes great pride in his line of serious books. His latest project is with a Holocaust survivor like himself who has written four volumes on Nazi medical experiments. The only trouble is that the company which Isaac and his wife ran together until her death six years ago is on the verge of bankruptcy.
When Isaac refuses to publish a novel which Aaron (Tony Goldwyn), his son and partner, believes will keep them in business, it's time for the rest of the family who own shares in the company to choose sides. Their decision is freighted with years of verbal abuse by their father. Martin (Timothy Hutton), who teaches landscape architecture at a university, has been characterized as "a gardener." Daughter Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker, an actress in children's television, has been treated as if she's a bimbo.
The Substance of Fire has been adapted for the screen by playwright Jon Robin Baitz. Director Daniel Sullivan draws out a tour de force performance from Ron Rifkin as an authoritarian autocrat whose obsession with his mission in life has isolated him from the only people in the world who matter his own flesh and blood. When they give their vote to Aaron, Isaac tries to set up his own publishing company but he can't make a go of it. After he plunges into a fantasy world and loses touch with reality, the only one who reaches out to save him is Martin. The Substance of Fire suggests that there is no family wound that cannot be healed by love and forgiveness.