Having fallen by the wayside in the twenty-five years since its theatrical release, Sidney Lumet's Daniel, adapted by E.L. Doctorow from his own novel, is an enormously difficult film to watch, to decipher, to contemplate, and, indeed, to review. Its concerns of a fictionalised Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and the adult children who suffered their legacy are forever relevant. If there's any single thing the youth of America is indoctrinated with, it's pride in country, including the extreme aversion to treason and traitors. Poor Benedict Arnold is unlikely to ever be replaced as the ultimate insult of betrayal. The Rosenbergs are probably less known, but their presence remains in most every high school history book. There is no defense in those texts, only black and white words assumed as facts. Students are taught that a Jewish married couple from New York City engaged in anti-American espionage for the Soviet Union and they were swiftly executed in 1953.
Doctorow's novel The Book of Daniel took up the idea of how the son of the Rosenbergs, now called Paul and Rochelle Isaacson, would react upon entering adulthood right in the midst of the Vietnam conflict. It's a fascinating idea. With dead parents who remain the shame of the nation, how could a young man possibly adjust to normal life, especially in such a turbulent time. These types of questions are exactly what should be required of the story, but they mostly remain elusive. One of the more disappointing aspects of Lumet's film is its reluctance to fully explore this character of Daniel, played to varying effect by a scraggly bearded Timothy Hutton. He needs to be the central focus of the movie instead of merely one of the many players involved. Daniel is the story here and he's the necessary point of emphasis, but the film seems to forget this detail.
It instead insists on alternating between a Vietnam-era present day and fifteen or so years before, when the Isaacsons were apprehended, put on trial, and eventually executed. This completely breaks any narrative flow established and additionally becomes troublesome for several reasons. Foremost, the Isaacsons' story is tangential and unengaging. I don't know if the emotions stirred inside the viewer in the film's treatment of Paul (Mandy Patinkin) and Rochelle (Lindsay Crouse) are particularly helpful. I found lots of difficult thoughts pinging back and forth with this blindingly supportive portrayal from Lumet and Doctorow. It's not even accurate to characterise the handling as balanced. The film completely and utterly takes the Isaacsons' side, giving no credence to the government's accusations. There's no question of guilt. There's no corroboration either way, actually. The preponderance of the evidence comes up entirely empty because there really is none at all. This isn't just liberal filmmaking. It's based completely on an agenda and a weighted coin. Heads I win, tails you lose.
I have zero problems with making movies for a purpose, but it nonetheless might be a good idea to give the audience something to chew on instead of unilaterally deciding right and wrong. These issues turn the flashback portion into an uninteresting blur. We know we're supposed to question their guilt, but why exactly are they without fault again? It all becomes far too muddled, even for those inclined to agree with the movie's point of view. However, the impression that these examinations of the past are bad would be incorrect. They're simply beneath the more interesting aspects of the film and, as such, they feel perfunctory, even unnecessary. An expansion of the storyline involving Daniel and his troubled younger sister Susan (Amanda Plummer) would have been a substantial improvement. For a film entitled Daniel, it's unfortunate how much time is spent elsewhere.
Where director and screenwriter do get it right is in the emotional ambiguity borne out of that very insistence on portraying the Isaacsons as simply random activists who face the wrath of the American government. It's a case of the good being taken alongside the bad. The film suffers from this structure, but it also inspires myriad conflict within the viewer. I think a shift in focus would have resulted in overall improvement, yet that shouldn't entirely negate what's accomplished in the existing product. This refusal to really acknowledge the possibility that the Isaacsons were indeed treasonous criminals actually keeps the audience on their closest deliberation. We repeatedly question our own ideals and the perception of the characters' guilt. This is ultimately the key to the film. It riles up established views and makes the viewer see things from a different angle. It's essentially just as fair as that history book. The film simply takes the opposite side.
Though there are negative ramifications as a result, it's still admirable for Lumet and Doctorow to maintain this consistency throughout their film. Too often the adherence to a particular viewpoint is criticised as being overly subjective. Isn't this largely the point of creating movies, though? To express a certain filtered idea? Because the filmmakers of Daniel resist hiding their apparent ideal, a dimension is lost, but there's another, sincere one gained. Only a director and writer as accomplished as these men could pull this off because of the implicit trust given to their lofty reputations. We study their opinions even if we recognise they're heavily weighted. In some regard, the viewer is then able to form his or her own evaluations based off this balance of the film's bias versus one's subjective reality. What this does for Daniel may be unique to each individual, but I found it made for a more interesting picture than a simple straightforward telling would have been. The established view of the Rosenbergs is thrown in alongside the film's marked inclinations, and the result is a much more difficult to ascertain conclusion than we'd have had Lumet and company simply played by the rules of objectivity.
Daniel is one of the many Paramount titles licensed for DVD release by Legend Films and it's nice to finally have it readily available for home viewing. Unfortunately, Legend seems to have cheaply slapped together each and every one of its releases without much care. Watching several of these now, it gets old really fast to repeatedly be met with interlaced transfers, no extra features and a lack of subtitles. The silver lining of low price ($15 retail) and simple availability is, however, obvious and considerable.
Aside from the transfer not being progressive, it's also in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio currently used to please widescreen television owners. Though Daniel was most likely filmed at 1.85:1, thus making the difference minor, it's disheartening to keep seeing the after the fact use, here and on countless other discs, of 1.78:1 when it's clearly not the original aspect ratio. The enhanced image is otherwise acceptable and looks quite clean, with only mild specks of dirt and some light grain present. Some viewers may find detail to be a tad soft, but given the age of the film and its no-frills DVD treatment, I'm not bothered by the level of sharpness. Colours seem to be natural and accurate, with blacks mostly sufficient despite some flare-ups in heavy grain on occasion. The flashback portions are shot with golden hues, which is not only distracting and unattractive, but also makes it somewhat difficult to assess the transfer quality. I don't believe there's anything there to worry about, as, judging from what I've seen here and on other titles, Legend does not seem interested in excessively manipulating the images of its releases.
The English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track is very, very basic. Volume levels are low. Dialogue is understandable, but not always as clear as it could be. The soundtrack makes little impression. I also noticed some synchronisation quirks early on. There are no significant problems in the audio, but it's unlikely to impress anyone. Again, Legend has not provided any subtitles and, again, this is a major issue of failure.
There's also a complete lack of special features. For some films Legend has released, this seems acceptable, but Daniel is a different story. All of the principal cast members are still actively working, as is Lumet and Doctorow. Since the film is closely connected to real-life events, some history about the Rosenbergs would have been appropriate to include on the disc. Moreover, when Sidney Lumet was asked earlier this year whether he felt any of his films had been unfairly overlooked, he immediately chose Daniel as his most neglected. The director has participated in DVD releases of several of his movies so it seems likely he would have been happy to do so here. Alas, nothing doing.
It bears repeating that just having Daniel on DVD, even with the film's shortcomings, is a modest victory, but any poor souls who are hearing impaired or clamouring for extra material, be it background or reminiscences, will feel left out.