To see "Daniel," from the novel by E.L. Doctorow, is to face the lions. It's a difficult film, distressing and depressing, a self- conscious work by director Sidney Lumet that expects a greatness of itself that it doesn't deliver.

Lumet's gloomy palette and looming wide-angled style lend a ponderously heavy feel that swallows the subject -- two generations of political activists whose lives bridge three decades of American dissent.

Doctorow's screenplay, from his book "Story of Daniel," sometimes screams with literary pretension: "The dignity of man . . . the unsung heroism of those who work the land" is a real mouthful for an actor. And Lumet asks an awful lot from the viewer as he translates book to film, with flashbacks and fast forwards within the flashes and flourishes. There are four time periods -- each with its own visual tone -- though not easily distinguishable. It's tricky time-travel.

We begin in the '60s. Daniel and his sister Susan are the children of Paul and Rochelle Isaacson, American socialists who were executed for conspiracy to steal atomic secrets for Russia. The trial and electrocutions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953 inspired Doctorow, who then fictionalized the background, just as he mixed fact with fiction in "Ragtime," both novel and film.

Timothy Hutton stars as Daniel, a disturbed graduate student, whose sado- masochistic relationship with his beautiful wife Phyllis (Ellen Barkin) is blessedly downplayed. Barkin's is a small part, but this is a film full of cameos and many exquisitely crafted roles. Daniel's sister as an adult, for instance, is a small part for Amanda Plummer, but what a moving performance she gives as the fatally depressed fragile activist, bruised beyond all hope of recovery by her parents' deaths. She breaks your heart. Maria Tucci is wonderful as Daniel's adoptive mother, as is Tovah Feldshuh as a childhood enemy grown up.

Hutton is creepy as he walks the razor's edge, trying to understand why his parents died. He becomes a detective of his own life, tracks down new witnesses, sorts out the crime. Mostly it's a crime of state against individuals, a pair of sweet revolutionaries, shot full of gold-toned romanticism by Lumet. The parents Rochelle (Lindsay Crouse) and Paul (Mandy Patinkin) are played with a zealot's lack of control.

The parents are naive, fairly skipping along to the picket lines and anti-fascist rallies of their day. They lecture the kids about the proletariat instead of about washing behind their ears. The film's best scene, between Paul Isaacson and Daniel, occurs over breakfast as dad explains about Joe DiMaggio's picture on the box of Wheaties: He probably doesn't even eat the Breakfast of Champions, so it's lying. "Advertising is lying." And Joe, he's a worker.

Paul and his didactic wife somehow make a romantic, lovable couple. Still, we don't feel much for them as they undergo their businesslike on-screen electrocutions. They seem to want to be martyrs.

Daniel describes electrocution twice, and drawing and quartering. Hutton can't overcome the material here. He delivers detailed descriptions of methods of execution and torture in extreme close-ups of his lips and nose and wispy mustache. Lumet, the editors, somebody should have ripped this stuff right out of the film. It evokes no pathos, contributes nothing to Daniel's character. It's an assault on the audience.

It's a sad, sad story, with Daniel coming out across the other side as a '60s activist. Having made his peace, he's now willing to give peace a chance. There are powerful scenes, touching scenes, moving scenes, shocking scenes, but they're like separate studs on a thick black leather belt. DANIEL -- At area theaters.