In his book Making Movies, an invaluable source for anyone interested in becoming a filmmaker, Sidney Lumet predictably gives a lot of space to his biggest hits, Network, Dog Day Afternoon, etc… One film that he extensively writes about is a lesser-known gem called Daniel, a drama he directed in 1983 that went on to become one of the biggest box office failures in the legendary filmmaker's career. Despite its commercial setbacks, Lumet still considered Daniel to be one of the best films he ever made.
That might be because the subject matter that permeated a lot of his best films, standing up for the rights of the meek and righteous against forces that look to oppress in the name of power or prejudice, is all over the story of Daniel. Lumet's first feature, 12 Angry Men, was about how everyone deserves a fair trial based on objective facts, regardless of ethnic or economic background. He continues that tradition with this moving and underrated film.
Based on E.L. Doctorow's 1971 novel The Book of Daniel, which itself was based on the real life prosecution and execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Daniel is about a cynical child of the 60s, Daniel (Timothy Hutton), who goes on a journey to figure out the truth behind his parents Paul (Mandy Patinkin) and Rochelle's (Lindsay Crouse) trial. Were Paul and Rochelle, members of the communist party at a time when the red scare was being pumped through the veins of the American zeitgeist, deserve their execution as traitors who sold vital secrets to the Soviet government, or were they victims, scapegoats to a society jacked up on paranoia looking for someone, anyone to destroy in order to alleviate some irrational fears?
Lumet takes the Godfather II approach to his narrative, cutting back and forth between Daniel searching for the truth behind his parents' execution, and his parents' story about how they stuck by their principles, misguided or not, against all odds. The predictable sepia tone that Lumet and his DP Andrej Bartkowiak settle on for the period scenes is distracting and makes these sections look like a made-for-TV miniseries from the period, but Patinkin and Crouse's passionate performances save the visual shortcomings. Lumet was praised by most critics for being especially apt in translating theater plays to the medium of cinema.
Even though Daniel's not based on a play, its most tense and vital scenes play out (Pun a little bit intended) this way, with characters talking and arguing for long periods of time in a single indoor location. The film's most heartbreaking moment happens in a boring dentist's office. A very long scene that takes place during a prison visit takes over pretty much the entire second half of the second act, yet there isn't a single moment in it that feels dull and unnecessary. Lumet was perfect in letting the writing and performances take over spiffy production design or visual trickery, simply because he picked the right material and the right performers. Watching Patinkin and Crouse during the prison visit scene is hypnotic enough to let us forget that what we're essentially looking at for twenty minutes is a couple standing in front of a bland prison wall.
Olive's 1080p transfer leaves a lot to be desired but also brings the best visual presentation of the film you'll find anywhere. The colors look a bit faded, the transfer is full of dirt, and there are some mild ghosting (Comet trails) issues.
The DTS-HD 2.0 presentation of Daniel's original stereo mix might as well be in mono. This is not Olive's fault, of course, since Lumet himself repeatedly defended the mono mix while voicing his annoyance at having to deal with various stereo or surround sound mixes post 1980s. The transfer is clean and comes to life during the scenes where Lumet effectively uses old gospel songs. One huge annoyance with Olive Films is that they don't offer subtitles, not even for the deaf or hard of hearing.
We get nothing.
Along with the film's message of anti-prejudice, Daniel is also a grim and thought-provoking indictment of the death penalty, observed succinctly thanks to scenes where Hutton breaks the fourth wall and calmly teaches the audience the gruesome and barbaric techniques of capital punishment throughout human history. Does the use of electric chairs, or in the case of our modern society, lethal injections, make this act any less immoral? Daniel is a flawed but engaging and powerful drama that deals with universal issues that sadly will never go away. Using xenophobia and racism to distract people from their own problems while casually hurting and destroying entire families will always come back during times of desperation, as we're unfortunately seeing today.