Despite disclaimers all over the place that this is not the story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of selling atomic bomb secrets to the Russians in 1951 and executed for treason in 1953, it’s pretty obvious that Sidney Lumet’s 1983 film Daniel can’t very well be about anyone else. After all, what other husband and wife were convicted and executed on that basis? Renaming them Paul and Rochelle Isaacson is hardly a convincing disguise. That said, Lumet’s film—based on the 1971 novel The Book of Daniel by E.L. Doctorow, who also wrote the screenplay—is not in any sense a biopic. Both book and movie are heavily fictionalized once they get past the central facts. They’re more about liberal politics, the allure of communism in the <#213>30s and <#213>
40s for many intellectuals, the hysteria of the McCarthy era politics (and the role it played in the dubious conviction of the couple), the not-so-subtle undercurrent of anti-Semitism and the effect of the lives of parents on their children.
The results are a rich, complex and not wholly satisfying film. The problem is essentially that Lumet has made a film that’s too set on its agenda to entirely be effective as drama. The search for the truth about his executed parents by Daniel Isaacson (Timothy Hutton) is compromised by Lumet’s understandable desire to be outraged by their fate regardless of whether or not they were guilty. Fair enough. But he fails to make the characters into anything more than vague ciphers in the process, making the results more intellectually than emotionally or dramatically satisfying. But it is both intellectually satisfying and a fascinating look at traditional Jewish liberalism. As such, it deserves to be better known than it is.