“Daniel”: investigation into a scheduled death sentence

Daniel Isaacson (Timothy Hutton), in

The tribute paid, in the fall of 2022, by the Lumière Institute in Lyon to Sidney Lumet, an admirable American filmmaker, author of a few pure masterpieces – Twelve angry men (1957), The Pawnbroker (1964), Serpico (1973), A dog’s afternoon (1976) – and a more than reasonable number of fascinating films, will have legitimately whetted the appetite of those who will have discovered there fifteen films on the forties, made between 1957 and 2007, that comprise his work. Thanks to Splendor Films, another title comes out today, which will not invalidate all the good that we can think of this filmmaker whom time has unfairly put to sleep.

Daniel, produced in 1983 and released in France in 1984, was inspired by the Rosenberg affair. In the midst of the Cold War, engineer Julius Rosenberg and his wife, Ethel, Jewish communist activists, are suspected of being spies involved in the leaking of military information during the Second World War, while the United States and the Soviet Union are allies. The couple’s death sentence by electrocution (they were executed on June 19, 1953), disproportionate to the evidence presented (based on the sole testimony of Julius’ brother-in-law), was obviously decreed in advance by the McCarthyist apparatus.

Thirty years later, Lumet adapts the historical fiction of the novelist Edgar Lawrence Doctorow, devoted to the intimate implications of this affair, The Book of Daniel (The Book of Daniel), published in 1971. The filmmaker is particularly sensitive to the point of view that the book adopts on the affair and to its temporal treatment. It is indeed from the point of view of the couple’s children (here renamed Isaacson), adopted by an assistant to the lawyer who pleaded their case, that the story is told to us, while they themselves find themselves caught in the political whirlwind and the resurgence of the left in the 1960s. The tension between the past and the present, the silent and tragic implications of the first in the second are questions that fascinate the filmmaker, as evidenced by at least two others from his most beautiful films: The Pawnbrokerin which a lowly Harlem pawnshop seems to have never been out of the death camps, and At the end of the race (1988), where two former leftists of the 1960s continue to flee from the FBI with their children of emancipation age.

expiatory victims

In Daniel, Lumet uses the narrative technique of alternating editing between the two eras, a process that is usually tedious, but which can turn out to be rich in emotions and intuitions when, as here, it is mastered with an art that is both sensitive and a profound intelligence. The couple of parents, pure and hard equality activists, rigid in their beliefs, cheated by Stalinism, see the trap of a rigged trial closing in on them, without trying for a second to improve their lot or that of of their children, expiatory victims. The quasi-documentary part reserved for the execution and operation of the electric chair (Ethel will survive three successive shocks before succumbing) is moreover one of those moments of commotion through which Lumet brings all the violence of the story into his movies. Note, in passing, for series fans, that the character of the father, a pure Stalinist, is interpreted here by young Mandy Patinkin, in whom they will probably not recognize, for both biological and ideological reasons, the Saul Berenson ofHomeland.

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