Daniel Isaacson (Timothy Hutton) wants answers and the fact he cannot secure them is driving him to distraction. It is the nineteen-sixties and the protests against the Vietnam War are reaching fever pitch, but he cannot fully commit to that when he has a baby on the way with his wife Phyllis (Ellen Barkin) and his younger sister Susan (Amanda Plummer) is growing ever more distraught about her own revolutionary zeal, to the extent of beatings from the police. He can see all this stems from the Cold War, and he is connected to the upheavals that had their grounding in the previous decade for his parents were arrested for spying for the Soviet Union back then. But were they innocent?
Good luck working that out in this perversely hard to get along with retelling of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg story, those American-Jewish left wingers who were not merely accused of spying, but executed for the crime of passing on nuclear arms secrets. Whether you believe they were guilty or not appears to be a matter of whereabouts on the political spectrum you land, as there is evidence to support either side, but the Rosenbergs' children were convinced of their innocence and sued the American Government over the killings. But the Rosenbergs were not the Isaacsons, and writer E.L. Doctorow was emphatic he was not making any kind of comparisons between fact and fiction.
This came across as somewhat disingenuous when, well, what else were we supposed to think when there was so much linking both Doctorow's book and his script for this film with the actual events, fair enough outside of the depiction of Communist sympathisers it did indeed go off on its own tangent, but that was not to say the American Communist business was negligible. Around half the film was devoted to Daniel's parents, Paul (Mandy Patinkin) and Rochelle (Lindsay Crouse), and their political rabble rousing which sours into a threat from the authorities to imprison, then end their lives, but director Sidney Lumet was evidently much taken with the chance to show Jewish life.
That would be Jewish life as he remembered it, where there were moves to explain why the Isaacsons yearn to make a difference for good on the world stage in the long shadow of the Holocaust, but like too much of this was fudged by trying to cram too much into the running time, which even so was by no means insubstantial. Either a film about the possible spies or a film about the suffering this has inflicted on their grown children would have done, but lacing them together in a muddle of a production that might have been about the Jewish experience and how there was danger in peace time (that the Rosenbergs were Jews put to death by the state has obvious parallels with the Nazis' treatment of them, if on a far smaller scale), or could have been a sensitive drama about coping with lasting trauma.
That it was both those things and more didn't make it satisfying, it made it ultimately confused, especially when it came down to whether Daniel's parents were guilty or not. Here it mattered more that the death penalty was put to nefarious use, for scapegoating, and it may have been the film thought the death penalty was always nefarious when it was placing the power of a government to kill its citizens legally in hands that may not be thinking clearly, or purely misguided - or purely vindictive. But it was hard to say what this film was concluding when by the finale it threw up its hands and gave us a happy ending, despite all the misery we had witnessed; fair enough, be optimistic, but it did feel dismissive of a lot of suffering and thorny issues that were not going away. Despite good performances (Edward Asner as a friend of the family stood out for his compassion, and Plummer wrestled admirably with a tough to play character), Daniel stumbled when it should have been charging, just too awkward to get along with.
Esteemed American director who after a background in theatre moved into television from where he went on to be the five times Oscar nominated filmmaker behind some of the most intelligent films ever to come out of America. His 1957 debut for the big screen, 12 Angry Men, is still a landmark, and he proceeded to electrify and engross cinema audiences with The Fugitive Kind, The Pawnbroker, Cold War drama Fail-Safe, The Hill, The Group, The Deadly Affair, The Offence, definitive cop corruption drama Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon (another great Al Pacino role), Network, Equus, Prince of the City, Deathtrap, The Verdict, Running On Empty and his final film, 2007's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Often working in the UK, he also brought his adopted home town of New York to films, an indelible part of its movies for the best part of fifty years.