The justice system films of director Sidney Lumet are populated mostly by its willing participants: there are the begrudging but dutiful jurors of 12 Angry Men (1957); the cops on the edge of The Offence (1973), Serpico (1973), and Prince of the City (1981); the prisoners and criminals who run afoul of the law’s strictures in The Hill (1965) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975); and the lawyers who perform their systemic roles in The Verdict (1982). Lumet’s 1983 feature Daniel is concerned with the system’s victims. It dramatizes the devastation that results when the justice system turns its considerable power on the defenseless, ordinary people who expect equal treatment under the law.
Based on the novel The Book of Daniel by E.L. Doctorow, Lumet’s film shortens the title, centralizing the main character’s struggle to learn what happened to his parents. Daniel Isaacson (Timothy Hutton) is a graduate student living in 1968 at the height of protests against the American war in Vietnam, dealing with the fallout from his sister Susan’s (Amanda Plummer) suicide attempt and hospitalization. Filled with renewed investigative purpose, Daniel begins his quest to discover the truth about his parents’ criminal trial, incarceration and subsequent execution at the hands of the state. In flashback sequences, Daniel shows what life was like for the family in 1940s and 1950s New York City, both before and after the parents, Paul (Mandy Patinkin) and Rochelle (Lindsay Crouse), were apprehended as suspected Communists spies and accused of stealing government nuclear secrets. Doctorow’s novel models the Isaacsons on the real-life case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, whose alleged crimes and ultimate fate motivate the film’s fury at the injustice and lament for their pain. Unsurprisingly, Lumet emphasizes the role that the justice system played in destroying the Isaacson family, the trauma of the parents’ execution lingering well into their children’s lives. This kind of social critique was nothing new for the author of the book. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime had been brought to the screen in 1981 by director Milos Forman; both film adaptations share the author’s sense of grand historical narrative, motivated by their sense of outrage at the injustices of America past. Ragtime is a relentless indictment of the legacy of slavery and its perpetuation by another name, Jim Crow, centering on a juke joint piano player named Coalhouse Walker (played in the film by Howard E. Rollins, Jr.) who responds to racially motivated vandalism and destruction of his car by becoming a radical when the justice system will not redress his grievances. After a revolutionary act of occupation, the police gun him down after he surrenders. Lumet’s Daniel similarly has little love for the police — they are introduced in the flashback narrative riding their horses through the streets of New York City, using their batons and rifle butts to break up a peaceful labor demonstration. While the horses ride up on the crowd, Paul shouts “Cossacks!,” indicting them for betraying their class and carrying out the corrupt orders of an entrenched power structure at the end of a gun. The officers are none too enamored of Paul’s taunts, and knock him to the ground.
Generally, Daniel borrows a cue from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II (1974) with its structure. In the present (1967-1968), Daniel begins his political awakening and pursuit of the truth about the case; in the past (1938-1956), the Isaacsons marry, have children, build a life, are arrested, incarcerated, tried, convicted, delayed for the appeals process and, finally, executed. Lumet bridges the two timelines through effective staging and match cutting. In the 1940s, the Isaacsons board a bus with their neighbors, bound to see the great African-American singer (and Communist) Paul Robeson sing. Lumet cuts to a bus arriving at the mental institution in 1967, and Daniel disembarks. He uses different color filters to distinguish the two timelines — the past is shot in warm, brownish-gold tones that give the images the feel of sepia-toned historical photographs, while the present is icy cold, the blues and grays of 1960s America given immediacy. The structure offers Lumet a chance to create numerous comparisons: Paul and Rochelle’s labor activities and marches against international fascism in the late 1930s and 1940s are explicitly compared to the New Left activists’ protests against the Vietnam War through juxtaposition. In both timelines, the justice system’s officials come in for heavy criticism. When the FBI and the NYPD come to Paul’s apartment to arrest him, the officers shred the family home, ripping up vinyl flooring and tearing through personal possessions while young Daniel (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) looks on in astonishment. Lumet’s camera lingers on the man in silent close-up, capturing the moment at which his faith in American institutions is forever damaged. This boy will never believe in justice, fairness or his country ever again. In the 1960s timeline, Hutton’s grown-up Daniel bears the cynicism generated in his youth. His hair has grown long, he wears a beard, obvious markers of the counterculture, but he has almost none of the political consciousness, as it’s been suppressed after losing his parents. Instead of radicalizing Daniel, the state’s execution of the Isaacsons has disengaged him permanently. Daniel’s apathy is contrasted with Susan’s ideological fervor. In a contentious dinner at their foster parents’ home before her suicide attempt, Susan accuses Daniel of betraying Paul and Rochelle’s memory through his indifference to the war. If they had not been executed by the state, they surely would be joining her in the streets, Susan suggests.
Throughout Lumet’s career, he was attracted to dynamic actors, directing them to often stunning performances of emotional significance. Lumet was especially eager to work with young actors, as his pair of films with Al Pacino (Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon) illustrates. Though many critics were less convinced by Treat Williams in Prince of the City than they had been by Pacino, Lumet helps the young actor craft a character shaded with deep moral ambiguity, and he gives an intriguing performance that stretches across the film’s epic near-three hour running time. Lumet took a gamble on Hutton, who’d broken out with a performance as a traumatized young man in 1980’s Ordinary People, and used him again in a role with echoes of Frank Serpico and Williams’s Daniel Ciello for 1990’s Q & A, a worthy continuation of Lumet’s takedowns of police corruption. Like Serpico and Ciello, Hutton’s Daniel Isaacson is an outsider whose passion is ignited by circumstance; he wants no part of the system until forces beyond his control ignite his desire. In Serpico, Frank comes to see his faith in the system betrayed as he gets in deeper; in Prince of the City, Ciello loses the ability to manipulate the system for his own ends. With nowhere else to turn, he loses himself. In Daniel, the boy schooled in youthful idealism by his politically committed father loses all belief in the system, and slowly fights to reclaim a piece of it for himself. Daniel doesn’t want to change it — he’s no reformer — but he begins to believe once again that the truth is a goal worth striving for, even if he never really reaches it. As the film goes on, Hutton embodies the character with some of Paul’s ideological fervor; even though he and Patinkin never share the screen together, Hutton’s passionate verbal attack on the daughter of the witness who testified against his parents in Daniel’s final act carries deliberate echoes of his father.
Lumet is careful not to lionize the Isaacsons, however, leaving much of their political activities and alleged crimes at the margins of the narrative. He is aided in this effort by his restriction of point of view, sticking mostly to young Daniel’s perceived version of events. When the family lawyer Jacob Ascher (Ed Asner) comes to the house, Lumet keeps the camera distant, suggesting Daniel is listening, even if he doesn’t appear in the frame. In another moment, Ascher begs a family friend (Julia Bovasso) to take young Daniel and Susan into her home while their parents await trial; Daniel sits in front of the television, his eyes glued to the cartoons. Lumet stages the shot with Daniel between the pleading lawyer and the reluctant would-be guardian, and though the actor never turns his head to look at the adults, there can be no doubt that he is hanging on every word. While still a boy, Daniel admires his highly ideological and morally committed father, who runs a radio repair shop and extemporizes on the class ruptures that divide labor from capital. Paul tells his son that Joe DiMaggio, Daniel’s favorite ballplayer and Wheaties cereal box poster boy, is fundamentally on their side because, as Daniel says, finishing his father’s sentence, DiMaggio “doesn’t own the team.” Paul draws Daniel’s attention to racial injustice, as well, lamenting that black players aren’t allowed in the same league with DiMaggio, “no matter how good they are,” in pre-Jackie Robinson Major League Baseball. Lumet subtly undermines Paul’s sanctimony a few scenes later; as the community group boards the bus for the Robeson concert, Lumet stops for a medium close-up on a black janitor who works for Paul. The janitor looks on as the all-white crowd hops on the bus, it not having occurred to any of them to invite him to join them to attend a concert by the most famous African-American singer then working. There are limits to Paul’s politics, and Lumet’s subtle inclusion of moments like this prevents the film from adopting young Daniel’s point of view completely.
Daniel shows where Lumet’s sympathies lie, however. He opts for little musical score, instead relying mostly on songs by Robeson to bridge transitions between timelines and punctuate scenes for dramatic effect. The opening title appears, “DANIEL,” white letters stretched to fill a black screen, while Robeson’s deep voice asks, “Who’s gonna be a witness?” on the soundtrack. The film’s credit answers Robeson’s question; fundamentally, Daniel fulfills his responsibility to his parents’ memory simply by learning more about the injustice done upon them. He cannot travel back in time to right the wrong, and he can do little to reform the system that marshalled its forces against them. However, Daniel can pay tribute by committing to understanding what happened. He is a student, which Susan sees as his way of avoiding responsibility. Taking her criticism to heart after she nearly kills herself, Daniel learns to use his studies to understand how, and why, the justice system uses its power to crush dissent.
Many of Lumet’s justice system films are hostile to those who would buck the system. It brooks no challenges from dissenters; its participants will either consent to its power and the limited role they play in its continuity, or they will be destroyed. Daniel stands outside the system looking in at what happened when his parents became its unwitting victims. In Daniel, the police and the FBI play their roles dutifully, violently busting up the labor march at the film’s outset or intimidating Paul and Rochelle in their home before the arrest. Paul refuses to comply during their first visit, insisting that he will “answer any questions in a court of law.” Paul’s mistake is in trusting the system to protect his freedom to dissent; his unpopular political opinions will soon be used against him, with the system’s full cooperation. A later shot shows Paul sitting on the couch, defeated, clutching an FBI warrant to search his house while the agents and police turn the place upside down. The police play a more menacing role in the aftermath of the Robeson concert when they barricade the main road, sending the convoy of buses down a dirt path through a forest. The unwitting bus drivers propel their vehicles directly into a trap; a phalanx of angry white men with clubs and rifles emerge from the trees and menace the bus, breaking windows and hauling the defiant Paul out the door for a beating. The police stand by, ignoring the bus patrons’ pleas for help. The attackers’ violent cries rain down: “Commie bastards!” “Dirty Jews!” In Lumet’s vision of the panic of the Cold War era, anti-Communist hysteria is often little more than a substitute for anti-Semitism.
The lawyers pay for their involvement, too. Ascher spends much of his time on the Isaacsons’ appeals case wiping sweat from his brow, the physical toll draining him. When the grown Daniel visits Ascher’s widow (Carmen Mathews) in a quest for additional evidence or documents on his parents, she as much as accuses the Isaacsons of murdering her husband. Lumet spends far less time in the courtroom than he has in previous films, certainly a step down from The Verdict, where much of the action took place inside its walls, but Daniel’s judges and prosecutors are cut from the same cloth as the unscrupulous, power-hungry empty suits of his other work. Though shot in the warm glow that characterizes much of the flashback sequences, the few scenes in the courtroom bear Lumet’s signature approach to shooting scenes set in justice system buildings — imposing, domineering structures that loom over the participants, an architectural reminder of their immense, inflexible power. The film’s two timelines converge visually during an extended sequence set inside the prison where Paul and Rochelle are being held while they await execution. The appeals process is slowly making its way through the courts, but the expectation is that they will be denied and sentence will be carried out. Ascher brings the young Daniel and Susan to visit their parents at the prison. They must see each parent individually — the system denies them the opportunity to reunite as a family, reinforcing its control over their lives. Lumet abandons the warm glow of the flashback, even though the scenes in the jailhouse well predate the main action in the 1960s, suggesting that Daniel’s contemporary point of view was fundamentally shaped during this moment.
As Ascher brings the children into the prison, they walk alongside enormous stone walls that command the frame. Ascher and the children are nothing beside these symbols of justice, a massive concrete reminder of where power lies. Upon entering the prison, Daniel stages a miniature protest that calls attention to the absurdity of his parents’ situation. When they approach a uniformed prison guard, Daniel throws his hands into the air and insists that he must be searched. When the skeptical guard, clearly not believing that a kid poses any real threat, refuses to frisk the boy, Daniel insists: “What if I have a gun?” The bemused guard lamely taps Daniel’s hip pocket with two fingers, annoyed at the foolishness of the task. Daniel, hands still in the air, demands that the guard also search Susan. The guard shakes his head, but complies. The boy’s nascent political radicalism is evidence of the man he might have become, had the system not used its power to destroy his parents. His act of protest makes a farce of the guard’s job, undermining the system’s power through mockery. Lumet knows better, though — his shots of the prison waiting room where the children will meet their parents one-on-one aggressively reclaims the system’s power, rendering the young Daniel’s critique moot. He positions the camera in wide shot in the corner of the room, two wooden doors in the center of the frame. Ascher stands at the edge, and the children stand apart, the wide expanse of the room between them. When one of the doors opens and Rochelle is brought in by the guards, Lumet mostly remains in wide shot, resisting melodramatic swells of music and soft close-ups of a mother reunited with her children. The reunion will be short-lived. What sincere human connection, even that as strong as the bond of a mother with her children, could withstand the oppressive, forbidding waiting room in a prison? Bars are everywhere. Guards look on. Everywhere, the justice system asserts its power, which Lumet reinforces through a wide shot. He uses the same strategy after Rochelle is led out and Paul is brought in. Their father is hardly the same man: his shirt is sweated through, his pants barely stay up, and his manner is frantic. His gift of oratory, the certainty with which he expressed his political opinions to his son over the counter at the radio repair shop or shouted them at an advancing police officer, are nowhere to be found. He speaks in fits and starts, choking out half-sentences before interrupting himself to pursue another train of thought. His intellect has been stolen from him by the system’s relentless, efficient persecution. Not even a man of Paul’s passionate beliefs can stand the punishment.
The sentence will be carried out — the Isaacsons are put to death in the electric chair. Lumet opens Daniel with a voice over of the grown-up title character describing the generation of electricity, and then returns to fleeting images of Daniel’s direct address to camera and close-ups of arms and legs being strapped in to the chair throughout the film like a chorus. He reprises the voice over during the scenes set in the prison as Paul, and then Rochelle, are led into the execution chamber. Staggering on his way down the hall, Paul collapses and has to be dragged in by the attending guards. They slide his barefooted body across the tile floor, one final indignity before he will be put to death. Once they arrive in the room, Lumet’s camera remains in the back, the electric chair centralized in wide shot. A group of observers sits off to the right, while guards and prison officials in uniform line the wall. The room’s walls are gray and inoffensive. A little light shines in from the ceiling window above the chair. The unconscious Paul’s glasses are removed by a guard, a callback to a moment on the bus when he took off his own glasses and handed them to a friend before being beaten by the attackers. The close-ups of the process leading to the execution are staid and bereft of emotion. Paul’s eyes remain closed for the duration, but one of the guards pulls down a leather flap over his eyes anyway. Lumet cuts back to the wide shot and a guard flips the switch; from a distance, he shows Paul’s body shot through with electric current, an emotionless twitching and seizing that garners no reaction from the guards or observers who have gathered to watch. They barely even seem to look at the man they are putting to death. Paul dies weakly, a shadow of the ideologically committed man he once was. Rochelle does not go so easily; ironically, her incarceration seems to have liberated her political consciousness, making her more committed than ever. Rochelle sends the rabbi who waits in the execution chamber away in contempt and stares menacingly at the guards who strap her into the chair. Where Paul’s eyes were closed when the warden rolled the leather flap over them, Rochelle’s are wide open, staring deep into his soul, punishing him with a death look. She wants her final act to haunt the men who carry out her sentence, all expressed through Lindsay Crouse’s defiant stare. Lumet returns to the same wide shot for the execution, and her body does the same electrified dance as Paul’s. She has the last laugh — the doctor who verifies the prisoner is dead leans over to the warden and says, “You’ll have to do it again.” Lumet cuts away before the sentence is carried out for the second time, letting Rochelle live on in memory.
Though Sidney Lumet is by and large a classical filmmaker who privileges wide shots, staging and judicious framing over highly expressive techniques, Daniel is one of his most formally adventurous works. His use of the bifurcated structure creates additional narrative resonances across timelines, and allows him to rhyme images through juxtaposition. He intercuts between the funeral held for Daniel’s parents, for instance, and the funeral for Susan (who dies off-screen, presumably from another, successful, suicide attempt). Daniel bears the hallmarks of Lumet’s other justice system films, but — unlike many of them — it ends on a more hopeful note, perhaps the lingering after effects of The Verdict’s relatively upbeat conclusion. If Lumet’s work on the justice system veers back and forth between belief in and cynicism about its ability to live up to its highest ideals, then Daniel places its faith in the power of dissent. The justice system may try to crush it, and may succeed in suppressing it through its capacity to level harsh punishment against individuals, but the power of the people will not be denied. Lumet closes Daniel with aerial shots of massive demonstrations in Central Park. The title character, his wife and child are among the crowd. They may lose the fight, but Daniel has learned that losing is no reason not to play.
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Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.