Picks and Pans Review: Daniel

updated 08/29/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/29/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

If good intentions were enough for a movie, Daniel would be an instant classic. Instead, Sidney (The Verdict) Lumet's adaptation of the 1971 E.L. Doctorow novel is a major disappointment. Part political drama, part history lesson, part crash course in parent-child psychology, this film is an unsatisfying hodgepodge. Doctorow's screenplay is a compare-and-contrast exercise between two generations of an American Jewish family. Mandy (Ragtime) Patinkin and Lindsay Crouse play fictionalized versions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the American Communists executed in 1953 for conspiring to sell atomic secrets to the Russians. As Lumet presents them, the couple are dedicated, sincere activists; he coyly sidesteps the still-controversial question of their guilt. But 20 years after the couple's death, their children cannot withstand the burden of their notoriety. Their son, Timothy Hutton, has become a self-absorbed grad student, while daughter Amanda Plummer is a nerve-racked anti-Vietnam War protester obsessed with her parents' memory. Like Stanley Kramer, who lapsed into such preachy films as The Defiant Ones and Ship of Fools, Lumet can be a causemonger. He dilutes the drama of Daniel by embracing more issues than any film could possibly sustain. Among other things, Daniel tackles capital punishment, the right to privacy, ethnic-group assimilation, mental illness and class warfare. And Lumet italicizes the issues' importance with a sanctimonious tone and a heavy-handed style: The film opens with an extreme close-up of Hutton lecturing the audience about forms of execution, a device returned to throughout the film. As the title character, Hutton is adrift in mannerisms: his performance lacks the intensity and resonance of his work in Ordinary People or Taps. There are admirable supporting performances from Patinkin, Crouse and, particularly, from Plummer, who overcomes such deadening dialogue as "I forget what it is you're supposed to expect from being alive." Most of the time, though, you feel like shouting at the screen: Off your soapbox, Sidney. (R)

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