Director: Sidney Lumet.
Starring: Timothy Hutton (Daniel Isaacson), Mandy Patinkin (Paul Isaacson), Lindsay Crouse (Rochelle Isaacson), Edward Asner (Jacob Ascher), Ellen Barkin (Phyllis Isaacson), Amanda Plummer (Susan Isaacson).
The characters are modeled on the lives of the children of the executed spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The grown children must now make sense of their lives before they can function as effective human beings in the protest age of the 1960s.
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
Daniel Isaacson speaks of electricity and that it is used to execute those condemned to death.
This is followed by scenes of protests from the 1960s. The Lewin-Isaacson family sits down for dinner. For the past dozen years, Robert Lewin and his wife Lise Lewin have raised Susan Isaacson and Daniel Isaacson after the execution of their parents. Susan shows her protest bruises to Daniel and his wife Phyllis. They all talk about the proposed Paul-Rochelle Isaacson Foundation for Revolutionary Studies. The Isaacsons have just come into their trust fund money. Susan wants to use the money to help the protest movement, but Daniel does not. He asks her if she wants to give away money, why drag the Isaacson family name into it? Sister says she is proud of her name, not ashamed of it, like Daniel. Susan says that her brother is a phony cynic and a selfish prick. Daniel says he doesn't want the money. He wants to give the money to the Lewins, but Robert Lewin says as guardian he cannot permit that. (Susan also refers to her pregnant sister-in-law as a milk cow.)
The Lewins try to stop the arguing, but things just get more heated. Daniel stands up and says that Susan once thought sex was the answer and then acid was going to be the answer and before that it was God. And now she is addicted to revolution. This really disturbs Susan. She starts crying and says that Daniel is like this because he believes that their executed parents were guilty. She says her mother and father were murdered. She leaves the room.
Flashback. There is a labor strike against the New York World-Telegram Printing Plant No. 2 and the peaceful labor protestors are demonstrating with signs on their fronts and backs. A group of policemen on horseback start approaching the group. Most of the demonstrators start backing up, but not Paul Isaacson. He stands up to the police, even though his future wife Rochelle screams to him to watch out. A policeman twirls his horse around, knocking Paul to the ground. Rochelle helps him to safety. Paul asks her if she goes to City College. Yes, they both go to the same school and at night.
Paul wants to walk Rochelle home from the college, but she warns him about her mother. He just says he will picket her. Rochelle laughs. He goes with her. At dinner, Rochelle denies to her mother that Paul is her boyfriend. The question of money comes up and Rochelle says she gave $3 dollars to defend the black Scottsboro Boys in jail in Alabama, boys falsely accused of raping a white woman. Mom is really angry because they have very little money themselves.
Paul and Rochelle are out front in a demonstration for Spanish democracy and against Spanish fascism in the then current Spanish Civil War. Later they listen to a communist speech about how the Soviet Union is the only socialist nation in the world. The speaker defends the Hitler-Stalin Non-aggression Pact. At night Paul and Rochelle dance. Paul is now in the army. He tells his audience in Rochelle's little apartment of how he wants to fight and wants to be there when the Americans finally link up with the troops of the Soviet Union. He puts on a Russian song and the people clap along.
Back to the present. The Lewin-Isaacson families gather at a dinner to talk to a family friend, who is Susan's psychiatrist, about Susan. She has been depressed and has been way too involved in radical politics. Daniel becomes very rude and insults the doctor, calling him a creep. He opposes the idea of Susan being in an asylum. Daniel gets up from the table and walks away. He goes to Susan's car and finds a rolled-up poster about freeing his parents.
Flashback. Jacob Ascher is barking instructions out to Daniel and Susan Isaacson, who are just children. It is a rally to free the Isaacsons. The crowd passes the kids over the crowd from hand to hand until they can get onto the stage. The crowd starts shouting: "Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!"
Back to the present. The family goes out into the Holiday Inn parking lot to see Daniel. Daniel tells them that Susan was on her way to New York. Robert says he thinks Daniel should hold onto the car until Susan gets better. Daniel says they should have spent more time with her. Lise tells Daniel that Susan just has an illness and, as an illness, it will be treated. Daniel wonders if maybe she is not ill, but just inconsolable.
Flashback. Daniel remembers when his father told him about advertising and lying. Dad tells Daniel that Joe DiMaggio on the cover of the Wheaties box is just a worker. At that time Susan was just a little baby. The family goes to the beach with another communist family. They talk about how the Communist Party has fallen on bad times. In those days he used to get teased by the daughter of the other family. The family is going to take Danny with them to hear the great Paul Robeson speak. The bus drives over the Bear Mountain Bridge over the Hudson River.
Back to the present. Daniel and his family take a ride on the bus to see Susan in the hospital. Susan smiles when she sees him. She asks how is his wife and baby? Daniel lies and tells Susan the whole family is here, including the Lewins. This makes his sister feel better. She has her wrists bandaged from her suicide attempt. Daniel is being very solicitous of her. She says she had something to tell Daniel, but now she can't remember what it was. The nurse takes Susan away. The last thing she says to Daniel is: "They're still fucking us, Daniel. Get the picture?"
Daniel talks about different forms of execution.
Flashback. Paul has a television in his front window in his store. It attracts a small crowd. He tells his wife that Mindish has been arrested by the FBI. Later the FBI come to the home to speak with Paul. Daniel sees the agents sitting in their family's small living room. After a call to his lawyer, Paul says he doesn't have to answer any of their questions. The agents say they were hoping Paul would cooperate in order to help his friend Dr. Mindish. The agents stay outside and watch the apartment. At night the children hear Paul and Rochelle arguing loudly.
The FBI come to the house with lots of support and start taking items away as evidence. They even go through the family garbage. They go through Daniel's things as he watches them. Paul is placed in handcuffs and taken away. Daniel jumps on one of the agents to save his dad, but he is pulled off by another agent. Daniel and Mindish are accused of being spies. Bail is set at $100,000 dollars. He is thought to be a member of a conspiracy and one of the conspirators must have talked to the FBI. Paul is accused of stealing atomic secrets. Her lawyer, Jacob Ascher, tells Rochelle that he thinks the FBI forced a confession out of one of the members of the conspiracy, mainly Salig Mindish. Rochelle faints. Jacob calls out for Daniel to bring his mother a glass of water.
Back to the present. Phyllis tells Daniel that maybe they could get out of Boston and go someplace like the northwest, that is, after Susan is well. Daniel says maybe Susan doesn't want to get well. He tells Phyllis that Susan is planning to die on him. After all, she did slit her wrists. He is a bit cruel to Phyllis and she tells him that every time he gets upset he takes it out on her. Daniel is feeling upset because he thinks that Susan was telling him that everything he has done in his adult life has been a waste of time, including marrying Phyllis.
As Daniel walks along the street, he hears the voice of his sister telling him that he is selfish and is ashamed of his family name.
Flashback. Rochelle tells a visitor named Ben that he is foolish to come here. No one visits them now, except the police. She asks Ben what possesses a man to do such a terrible thing? Ben is willing to testify for Paul, but Rochelle warns Ben that anyone that is associated with them is suspect. People won't even come to pick up their repaired items. She cries asking that they say Paul is fine, but how can anyone be fine when they are locked up in jail?
Rochelle has a friend who will baby-sit the kids, while she talks to the government lawyers. A black man comes in and tells the kids something he heard on the radio. His mother is in jail.
Jacob Ascher works on Frieda Stein to get her to agree to take the two Isaacson children. She finally agrees and the kids go with her.
Back to the present. A reporter named Jack talks to Daniel about the trial of his parents. He says that the government had no case. They charged that a radio repair man without training or education could draw up plans of the most sophisticated technology and then reduce these drawings to put them on dental X-ray film. Daniel talks about the Isaacson Foundation. Jack now wants to talk to his sister. The reporter soon figures out that what Daniel is trying to do is to clear the names of his parents. Daniel denies this. Jack says that it's impossible to clear their names. His parents didn't steal atomic secrets, but they had to have been doing something that was worth maybe at the most five years in prison. There was no Washington conspiracy against them.
Flashback. The Isaacsons watch Gen. MacArthur on television as he speaks to congress. As soon as Ms. Stein starts to come in, they hurry and turn of the television and sit on the sofa. But she knows they have been watching TV and she scolds them for it. Daniel's mother writes a letter to her son. She urges him to study from books borrowed from the library. They are trying to get him into a public school.
Daniel and Susan are put in the East Bronx Children's Center. Daniel sleeps with the guys in what looks like a military barracks. At lunch Susan runs to her brother Daniel and hugs him. The caretaker for the girls runs over to take Susan back to her seat, but Susan bites her. The woman smacks Susan across the face and Daniel throws his tray right in the face of the caretaker. The kids are up on their feet shouting and screaming and throwing foot.
The director speaks with Daniel. He says this his sister is giving them a great deal of trouble. She won't cooperate in anything. And she keeps the other girls up at night. He asks Daniel if he has any idea what is bothering his sister? Daniel says Susan thinks this is a jail where they keep family apart. The director explains to Daniel why his institution is not a jail. It comes out that Daniel is afraid that the government is going to kill his parents.
Daniel is going to sneak out of the Center with Susan. They open a door while the kids are playing and simply walk away from the Center. They walk around the Bronx until they find their old home. The building is all closed up. Daniel forces his way inside the apartment building. He opens the front doors and lets Susan in. She wets her pants as she stands there in the door well.
Jacob Ascher picks up the children. He tells them soon their parents will have their trial.
Back to the present. Daniel talks about capital punishment in Russia. He now starts looking for family papers. Mrs. Ascher tells Daniel that she has no papers. She gave them to Robert Lewin. She also mentions that her husband wanted to adopt him and Susan, but he couldn't because he knew he did not much time left in his life. Mrs. Ascher is bitter about the Isaacson trial because, she says, it ruined her husband's health. And the Isaacsons were very difficult to work with. They wouldn't let him call witnesses that would have helped their case. Mrs. Ascher gets so upset that she has to leave the room. A maid holds the door open so Daniel can exit the place.
Daniel visits Susan in her hospital room. She seems to have gone into a kind of catatonic state. Daniel visits with Robert Lewin. The Lewins say that Mrs. Ascher is a biased observer. She blamed Daniel's parents for her husband's death. Robert says in those days, the Americans down-graded Soviet technology. So when they got the bomb, the Americans concluded that they had to have gotten it through espionage. Of course, this was before the Age of Sputnik. Daniel says he has tried to calculate the odds of his parents being selected to be the fall guys. Robert says that if you are the FBI and you know you have to blame somebody, you go to your files and search for a leftist who seems venerable. And that man was Salig Mindish. Lise becomes very upset about hearing about the trial again and Daniel has to get up to comfort her.
Flashback. Jabcob Ascher talks to the judge and the prosecuting attorney about this terrible charge of conspiracy that will win out because it only takes one witness to blame all the others and they will all be found guilty. He doesn't want the prosecution bringing up the defendant's long history with the Communist Party because he feels it will be too prejudicial to the jury. The judge, however, rules for the prosecution.
Back to the present. Robert says the times were against poor Jacob. Jacob tries to convince the jury that it was Mindish and Mindish only that was guilty of the espionage. This, says Robert, was a bad move because it admitted to the court that an actual crime had been committed. Robert hypothesizes that the FBI convinced Mindish of his own guilt and he went along with it for fear of the consequences of his acts. The communists in that day had the faith -- the faith and the passion to suffer for their faith.
Flashback. Daniel remembers sitting and listening to Paul Robeson sing. In Peekskill on the opposite bank from Bear Mountain State Park, the police direct the buses off the road into a very wooded area. There some rednecks attack the buses with ax handles and bats. Paul tries to keep them from getting on their bus by blocking the door. But Mindish opens the door and lets Paul be pulled out. He then closes the door.
Back to the present. Daniel once again talks about forms of capital punishment.
Flashback. Jacob is taking the kids to the prison. Susan says their parents are already dead. Daniel asks if Jacob is sure their parents want to see them? He says: "More than anything." Daniel insists that one of the guards search he and his sister. Mom comes out and says they are so big that she can't even recognize them. She asks them to give her a hug. Susan asks her mother when are they going to kill her? Mom denies that they are going to kill them. They have appeals coming up.
Daniel says he is going to be a lawyer and get her free. He says he will kill them before they can kill mom. Susan acts a bit weird and withdrawn. Mom says goodbye to her children and then rushes out. Dad comes in next. The children stand still away from their father. He shows them his collection of dried, dead insects. Dad just talks non-stop. He argues briefly with Jacob about the case.
Back to the present. Daniel goes to see a girl from his past, the bully daughter of Mindish. She is now engaged and is a dentist. She is not happy to see him and brings in her fiancÚ, a lawyer. The lawyer tells Daniel that the family does not have to talk to him about the trial. They will not talk, but the daughter of Mindish does want to say a few things. She says after her father went to prison, it was very difficult for her and her mother. But she found inner strength that she did not know she even had. The Isaacsons were heroes to some leftists, but Selig Mindish was a hero to no one. They lost all their friends and the years he spent in jail ruined them. She is furious with Daniel because she says his parents led her father down the garden path. He turned into a spy for the Isaacsons. Daniel wants to know why her father confessed? Was it to save himself? Her father fingered his parents to save himself. He says the government only arrested his mother to get his father to talk. Even on the electric chair the FBI were asking his father who was it that really ran the atomic spy ring?
Daniel goes on to say that there was another couple involved, and Mindish fingered the Isaacsons to protect this other couple. He also says that it's never been proven that any secrets were stolen. The daughter of Mindish says that Daniel's parents ran the communist show back then. She laughs at his belief that another couple was involved. Daniel says he didn't come some 3,000 miles just to hear her spout the family line. She now tells him to leave. He still wants to interview her father.
The daughter takes Daniel to see Selig, but his mind is too far gone. Daniel sits down and keeps repeating he is Danny Isaacson, son of Paul and Rochelle Isaacson. Suddenly, Mindish seems to recognize the name and smiles, but then gets upset and cries. He kisses Danny's forehead. Danny seems to be giving up. He tells the daughter: "There's such a thing as too much hope." He kisses her on the cheek and leaves.
Flashback. Paul Isaacson faints as he is brought to the electric chair. The guards pick him up and put him in the chair. They strap him in, take off his glasses and fasten the helmet on his head. Then they put a sort of mask over his forehead and mouth. The cables are attached to the helmet. A flap is pulled down to shield his eyes from view. The current is turned on and Paul's body seems to dance in the chair.
Next to be executed is Rochelle. She kicks the Jewish Rabbi out of the room. She looks around at the audience, the guards and the officials. She kisses the black, female guard, who then runs out of the room. They strap her in and connect the cables. The flap is brought down over her eyes and nose. Her upper body does most of the dancing. She, however, does not die on the first try. They have to do it again.
The funeral takes place. Jacob, Robert and Lise and the children go to the funeral.
Back to the present. There is a funeral for Susan.
Flashback. The children attend the funerals of their father and mother. The rabbi says some words over the couple's graves.
Back to the present. Daniel has brought three rabbis to the funeral and they all pray for Susan.
Scenes of a 1960's protest. Daniel watches it and then follows the group of protestors. The small group joins the large group. He watches the larger group of protestors. His wife and child are there and they walk with the protestors.
Good movie. I enjoyed it. I always stayed away from the story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, maybe because I thought it was just too sad. I was under the impression that they were guilty, but didn't really know, but still it was a sad ending. The movie provides a different view of the Rosenbergs, as guilty of something that could get them at most 5 years in prison, but certain not guilty of something as big as to warrant their execution. They are also pictured as victims of the anti-Communist hysteria of the times. The Russians had just gotten the hydrogen bomb and the American authorities concluded it could only have happened through espionage. They had to arrest someone as the spy or spies that gave the Commies the H-bomb.
Wikipedia says that the court case is still controversial to this day. One thing for sure is that there were a lot of spies feeding classified information to the Soviets on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Julius Rosenberg seems to be one of these spies. His brother was feeding him information as he worked at Los Alamos. But, did they have to kill both Paul and his wife when everyone else escaped the death penalty? Perhaps they were selected because they refused to confess or even cooperate with the authorities.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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