Yesterday I made a point to wake up early and see the 11AM screening of the documentary “Heir To An Execution.” I made this decision entirely on the basis of the unique relationshipbetween the filmmaker andher subjects. The film follows Ivy Meerpol, a twenty-something from Brooklyn, as she tries to reconcile the infamous lives of her grandparents Ethel and Julius Rosenberg who were controversially tried, convicted and executed for selling atomic secrets to the Russians in the early 50’s.
The first half of the film is rough with Ivy not to mention whoever was manning the camera getting her bearings. As the film opens we see Ivy trying to visit the grave of her grandparents and being rebuffed by the cemetery’s reception area before cutting to archival footage of the Ethel and Julius’ burial.
Ivy then goes on to interview her family. She is clearly not comfortable on screen, smiling awkwardly and fidgeting frequently. Frankly, Ivy is not a great interviewer. She stumbles when asking her family about her grandparents, leaving the audience confused about what exactly happened to them.
Turns out this sloppiness is a brilliant ploy. Ivy deliberately, or surreptitiously it doesn’t really matter makes the first half of the film confusing to parallel her own confusion with the arrest and trial that leads to her grandparent’s execution.
As the tale unfolds we learn that when her grandparents become radical socialists afterwitnessing the suffering of the depression, and they join the communist party with good intentions of course. We learn about the injustices in their trial and how they were highly-principled personalities who wouldn’t rat out their friends and loved their children dearly.
Obligatory footage of McCarthy era anti-communist hysteria is shown to rile up the audiencein the face ofthe huge injusticethat wasthe execution of Ethel and Julius. Then we find out through declassified documents and an eyewitness that Julius was, in fact, sending information to the Russians.
One by one we see the people who defended Ethel and Julius eventually concede that they probably were spies.
This leaves the filmmaker with a number of loose ends including why didn’t Julius confess and let Ethel off the hook to take care of their two kids? It was clearly an available option.
Additionally, while the declassified documents show that Julius was working with the Russians there is no evidence he sent the atom bomb plansthat he and Ethel were convicted of sending. This gives some of the family some hope to cling to, as does the fact that Ethel Rosenberg probably wasn’t involved and maybe didn’t even know about what her husband was doing.
Politics and the trial are left aside ultimately, with the filmmaker trying to find some redeeming quality in her grandparents. It is a shallow victory when one of Julius’ co-workers, now 103 years old, explains that his life was saved because Ethel and Julius refused to “name names” to save their own lives. If the Rosenberg’s were in fact spies it would only make sense that they wouldn’t roll over on other spies. This gives the audience the impression that the Rosenberg’s were really good spies who saved the lives of other spies.
Ultimately the filmmaker’s zeal to resolve her personal dissonance and clear her family’s name winds up only convicting them more.