In “Heir to an Execution,” filmmaker Ivy Meeropol looks beyond the socio-historical significance of her grandparents Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, searching instead for the human story behind their arrest, trial and execution, and the divisive impact and lasting wounds inflicted by those events on her family. Absorbing, reflective documentary is more successful as a timely recap of Red Menace hysteria than as a personal journey, at times straining for emotional arcs rather than letting them evolve organically. Still, enduring interest in the subject and the wealth of fascinating archive material will make this a prestige item for HBO.
Personal documentary is a tricky form. While some filmmakers like Nathaniel Kahn in last year’s “My Architect” strike the right balance of direct involvement while investigating elusive questions regarding a family member-subject, others can seem intrusive. To some degree, this is the case with Meeropol, who’s onscreen too much, often lingering in the frame well beyond the time it takes to convey any emotional response to her findings.
A half-century after the Rosenbergs’ were put to death in the electric chair for treason after having been convicted of passing America’s atomic bomb secrets to the Soviet Union, Meeropol seeks primarily to understand what was so important to her grandparents that they chose to orphan their two sons rather than betray their beliefs.
The question of why the Rosenbergs refused to save themselves by speaking out at the trial yields no clear answers. But what emerges most strongly is that their choice to maintain silence was as much motivated by deep-seated personal convictions as by broader political concerns. While acknowledging that Julius, in particular, was engaged in some degree of espionage activity, the material retraced or discovered in the documentary allows Meeropol and her father Michael to feel a sense of pride in the fact that the Rosenbergs were incapable of selling out.
The filmmaker and interview subjects including her father point repeatedly to serious prosecutorial misconduct in the rush to bring down a guilty verdict, but the precise nature of that misconduct is never fully conveyed, perhaps partly out of a desire to avoid bogging down the film with case technicalities. What the doc does persuasively argue for, however, is the relative innocence of Ethel Rosenberg: She was aware of and appears to have supported her husband’s subversive activity without being directly involved.
One of the more unsatisfying aspects of Meeropol’s film is its reliance for dramatic impact on the central issue that the filmmaker was raised to believe in her grandparents’ innocence and is destabilized in her thinking when evidence emerges showing the case was not so black and white. Fact that this widely documented evidence surfaced when the Venona papers were published in the mid-1990s seriously undermines this as a confrontational element now.
Some encounters with family or with the Rosenbergs’ friends, fellow activists and biographers yield telling moments but the fact that the majority of the couple’s relatives changed their names and decline all contact creates a wall that lessens the emotional stakes, despite the evidence of betrayal and abandonment. Too often, the director seems to be struggling for an immediacy that just doesn’t coalesce for the viewer.
The film assembles a wealth of engrossing material, provides an enlightening recap of socialist idealism and the radical 1930s and ’40s, and subtly delivers some resonant truths about the dangers of the 1950s scare mentality once again thriving in the high-alert U.S. But a more objective outsider eye — as well as a more resourceful filmmaker — might have succeeded to a greater degree in delineating the gripping story contained within the Rosenbergs’ legacy.