"Let our death be your bar mitzvah," Rochelle Isaacson tells her young son in Daniel. She and her husband Paul, members of the Communist Party in the United States, are executed for conspiracy to sell atomic secrets to Russia. The film, based on E.L. Doctorow's 1971 novel The Book of Daniel, is about the legacy of pain passed from one generation to another, the paranoia of the 50s and the idealism of the 60s, the drawbacks of zealousness, and the necessity to come to terms with family.
Daniel (Timothy Hutton) is a young graduate student who has buried his anger from the past and wants to remain detached from politics. His sister Susan (Amanda Plummer) has directed her rage against capitalism until she has no more left. She is institutionalized following a suicide attempt. This crisis propels Daniel to excavate the past to determine the guilt or innocence of his parents. After talking with many of those who were involved in their case, the young man visits the man who fingered them. He is senile and only momentarily recalls Daniel's face. In a very contrived and unconvincing finale, the seeker returns home for his sister's funeral and decides to carry on the Isaacson spirit by dedicating himself to the Vietnam anti-war movement.
Sidney Lumet directs this movie by shifting scenes, characters and time. Mandy Patinkin and Lindsay Crouse are properly intense as the Isaacsons. Edward Asner is convincing as their lawyer, the only one who seems to care about the abandoned kids. John Rubenstein and Maria Tucci are perplexed as the adoptive parents of the Isaacson children.
The trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953 offers the historical launchpad for Daniel. Although all those connected with this flim claim it is not a docu-drama, perhaps it should have been. The movie's themes aside, at its conclusion one cannot help wondering what was the truth behind those real lives and deaths.