Amid the trivia of a poor season, a complex and challenging drama

The arrival of ''Daniel'' bodes well for American movies. Amid the trash and trivia of a very poor season, here is a serious and challenging drama on a complex and controversial subject. Its prime movers, director Sidney Lumet and writer E.L. Doctorow, deserve applause for audacity as well as ability.

That said, it must be noted that ''Daniel'' doesn't measure up to ''The Book of Daniel,'' the Doctorow novel it's based on. While many aspects are handled with care and intelligence, the scenario is overcrowded and the performances are sometimes pushy. Its ambitions are impressive. But its strategies often smack more of Hollywood convention than the brave imagination that courses through the original novel.

Viewers should be forewarned, too, of realistically vulgar language and harrowing emotional situations that would account for the picture's R rating even if there weren't two graphic scenes of death by electrocution (rather sanitized by comparison with the book's descriptions) at the climax.

Both the book and the film explore various currents in American social history, from political dissent to parent-child relations. The guiding metaphor, drawn from real life, is the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the American couple who were put to death for treason in 1953. Their surrogates in ''Daniel'' are a couple named Isaacson. We see them through the eyes of their son as he pieces together the circumstances of their lives and deaths and struggles to understand the implications for himself and his society.

It's important to remember that the Isaacsons are not really the Rosenbergs, but fictional characters who share with them a number of ethnic, ideological, and family traits -- as well as the excruciating circumstance of being on trial for their lives. We are invited to empathize with them, and even more closely with their son, who has devoted much of his intellectual and emotional energy to coming to terms with his position as member of this unusual and unhappy family.

In a smart maneuver that increases the impact of the book and film - by making them more universal in tone -- Doctorow takes no stand regarding the innocence or guilt of the Isaacsons. Daniel himself, deeply involved as he is, makes no pretense of having the answers, though he has theories. What's important is the murky brew of cold-war suspicion, Communist caginess, dubious legal procedures, and overheated family relations that dominate the events of the story.

Not all Doctorow's devices serve the movie as well as they served the novel, however. The book, for example, ranges freely through time - from the late 1970s , when Daniel is piecing together his parents' history, to the 1950s when they were tried and executed, and still farther back, to their prewar days of heady political idealism. Jumping among these periods, the novel takes on a temporal freedom that's always stimulating and often revealing. Structured in a similar way, the movie sometimes seems scrambled, unable to commit its storytelling momentum either to isolated scenes or to the fractured jigsaw puzzle they belong to.

The end of the film also poses a problem. Like the book, it leaves Daniel at the brink of a fresh new phase in life, finally free of the memory-ghosts that have haunted him so long. Since the period is about 1967, he manifests his new self-assurance by leaving his long retrospection behind and moving into the turbulent present. On the page, we can take this as a metaphorical gesture. On the screen, though, it assumes a literal reality -- as Daniel strolls into the thick of an antiwar march -- that's too narrow to satisfactorily conclude the long odyssey he (and we) have just finished.

It also distances us from Daniel by placing him too firmly in a '60s context, especially since the '80s have proved very different (so far, at least) in political and ideological atmosphere. Evidently the filmmakers feel the spirit of protest and dissent is still healthy and wanted to underscore this. But as I watched Daniel walk into an anti-Vietnam-war demonstration, I felt I was seeing yet another moment out of history, nearly as removed from now as the scenes set decades ago. And I wondered why the past 15 years were being so pointedly ignored.

The casting of ''Daniel'' mostly resists the siren call of Hollywood-style glamour. Little excess prettiness or false charisma here: Lindsay Crouse is a no-nonsense Mrs. Isaacson, and Mandy Patinkin is just right as her attractive but not quite alluring husband. Amanda Plummer is wrenching as Daniel's deeply troubled sister, and Ellen Barkin is subtly persuasive as his wife.

Even TV star Edward Asner takes on a gritty authenticity as the Isaacson's dedicated lawyer. Among the leading players, only Timothy Hutton doesn't reach the depths of his character, though he has a screen presence that may help draw audiences into the complexities of the story.

During his long directing career, Lumet hasn't always matched ambition with achievement. Generally, he comes closest when he understates. He did this in his last movie, ''The Verdict,'' letting his performers set their own pace and capturing their work in long, uninterrupted shots of stunning effectiveness.

Unfortunately, he's overeager in ''Daniel,'' cutting too busily from shot to shot and allowing some performances to become too feverish as they proceed. I suspect this is another consequence of the movie's structure, with its leaps through time and reliance on many brief episodes. Lumet tries to cram as much emotion as possible into each sequence, and the result can seem mannered and overwrought, though there are splendid exceptions such as a prison meeting between Mr. Isaacson and his children that captures the novel's full poignancy in a tour de force of moviemaking.

I don't mean to come down on ''Daniel'' too heavily. It is a hard-hitting drama with thought-provoking observations on a striking number of subjects that are treated all too rarely by entertainment-obsessed American filmmakers. I wish it were crafted more carefully as a work of cinema and that all its performances were as forceful as its very best ones. But I'm glad it's here to bring our summer film season a bit of badly needed heft, and turn our awareness to social and political issues that will always bear further thought and comment.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.