‘A Compassionate Spy’ Film Review: Steve James Doc Examines a WWII Scientist’s Moral Espionage

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Arriving at a fateful time in the history of handling top secrets, “Hoop Dreams” filmmaker Steve James’s new documentary “A Compassionate Spy” aims to suggest that not all disloyalty is so clear-cut.

Though James couldn’t have foreseen the country being gripped by speculation about the motives of an unprincipled ex-president in suspicious possession of sensitive documents, this slice of history — making its world premiere at the 2022 Venice Film Festival — nevertheless offers up a story of unambiguous espionage with idealistic motive: a Harvard physics undergraduate recruited for the Manhattan Project who, in 1944, passed on its secrets to the Soviet Union to safeguard the world from monopolistic power and atomic annihilation.

His name was Ted Hall, and though he was suspected his whole life by authorities, he lived free from prosecution, raising a family and working at Cambridge University on pioneering biophysics until his death in 1999.

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In James’ retelling, he exists for us through a handful of archived interviews and a private confessional recording, in recreated scenes played by actors, and most prominently in the freshly interviewed remembrances of Hall’s wife of 52 years, Joan, who fully supported her husband’s actions from the time he first told her during their whirlwind campus courtship in 1947.

That’s some heavy baggage for a couple of young socialists in Cold War America to bear as they start their lives, and it’s James’s vivid portrait of that tight, politically simpatico relationship and of the weight of a husband’s youthful action on a loving marriage that becomes this powerfully told, nuanced documentary’s emotional anchor.

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But in its parallel narrative recounting America’s disturbingly hawkish excitement about its frightening new weapon — try not to feel disgust at a clip of President Truman giggling in the middle of a prepared speech after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — the movie is also unmistakably an argument that Hall, the youngest scientist at Los Alamos in 1943, had a prescience about worsening international relations between an emboldened, nuclear-armed U.S. and the rest of the world. It was a fear borne out by declassified documents unearthed in later years by one of the film’s contextualizing interviewees, physicist-author Daniel Axelrod, who informs us that America had rafts of plans to bomb the Soviet Union and other countries in the years following World War II.

These and other discomforting facts about America’s initial atomic-age ambitions put a mitigating light on Hall’s helping the Soviets speed up their own bomb, helping us understand why a conscientious U.S. scientist who refused to celebrate with his colleagues after the first bomb test might see sharing atomic secrets with a then-ally as an act driven by, he explained at the end of his life, “compassion.” (James pointedly reminds us what partnership with Russia looked like during World War II, using alarming-to-today’s-eyes footage from the pro-Stalin Hollywood film “Mission to Moscow.”)

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The spying/laying-low details are certainly nervy, never more so than when the Feds target Hall with an intimidation campaign (interrogation, bugging, surveillance). As the Red scare heats up, the fate of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg suggests to new suburban parents Joan and Ted that a paranoid, prosecutorial America may not be the most hospitable environment in which to raise three daughters. The reliance on recreations to enrich the suspense of Joan’s already vivid recollections is understandable, but from the start, these scenes (often scored to the brooding Mahler symphonies that Hall loved) are the weakest part of the documentary, more PBS-decorous than cinematic.

What’s palpably clear as the years go on is that the burden of their secret proved uniquely hard on Joan. After moving to England, Ted could at least be fulfilled as a scientist, but Joan — an engaging interviewee who draws up the past readily, whether closing her eyes or laughing or wincing — had to squelch her thirst to be a politically active citizen and play the unassuming housewife and mom so as not to attract undue attention.

One of James’ most touching interview moments captures Joan’s adult daughter Sara emotionally recalling what it was like to learn that the proudly leftist parents she saw as all-talk-no-action were anything but — that her dad likely changed the course of history. (James also interviews the children of Hall’s friend and co-conspirator Saville Sax, and their handling of their dad’s wartime activities, while different, is no less poignant.)

Hall’s spying was eventually publicized in the mid-90s, and he opened up about it before his death. “A Compassionate Spy” nevertheless still feels like hidden history, perhaps because the US would rather keep the narrative of so consequential a security breach from coloring its well-mythologized image as a moral victor. But it’s worth being reminded by James’s layered, grippingly told account of a principled betrayal that when it comes to the biggest threats facing the globe, sometimes one person in the right circumstance can make a difference. Does our climate crisis need a Ted Hall?

“A Compassionate Spy” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Venice Film Festival.