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Telluride Film Festival 2022: Retrograde, A Compassionate Spy

Two political documentaries that recently premiered at the 2022 Telluride Film Festival were inadvertent thematic companions of sorts, charting the US’s involvement in two different wars from varying viewpoints.

First, there’s the soul-piercing “Retrograde” by the fearless documentarian Matthew Heineman, who knows a thing or two about being on the front lines, following an unfolding crisis on the ground and in real time. He demonstrated as much throughout his astounding streak of “Cartel Land” (2015), “City of Ghosts” (2017) and “The First Wave” (2021), about the Mexican drug war, Syrian activist group RBSS and the early months of Covid in NYC respectively. With his latest, he continues on the same courageous vein and delivers a document of another significant slice of history: the turbulent final nine months of America’s war in Afghanistan since 2001. 

Call those 20 years that were touched by four US Presidents “the endless war” or “the forever war” if you will, and the result is the same: tens of thousands of lives lost, trillions spent. But there was another incalculable cost that occurred in the tail-end of the chaos seized by Heineman and his intrepid crew; one caused by America’s disorderly and neglectful withdrawal from the country that left Afghanistan’s people and government vulnerable to the Taliban, nearly negating whatever was built prior. With honesty, a perceptive sense of tenderness and journalistic resolve, Heineman charts that period from a variety of perspectives that includes the final remaining US Special Forces units on the ground (namely, U.S. Army Green Berets) as well as civilians fighting with all they’ve got to flee their homeland after key Afghan cities like Lashkar Gah and Kandahar fall to the Taliban one after another. The chief perspective belongs to General Sami Sadat, a star army officer in southern Afghanistan. A dignified figure who wistfully voices his desire to grow old and see peace in his country, Sami Sadat almost fights two simultaneous wars. One is the physical resistance against Taliban, a fight between totalitarianism and freedom. Just as treacherous, the other is a struggle to preserve a sense of optimism amongst his men in the face of low morale and doom and gloom atmosphere.

This dilemma is perhaps best summed up by what an Afghan troop working with the Americans says: “If we go back to our civilian lives, we won’t be safe from Taliban. And if we were to collaborate with the government, we will be targeted and harassed.” From an intimate scene when the general aggressively shaves while scarring himself often, to another when he bites his own lip, Heineman captures the passionate leader’s amiable yet anxious temperament in warm detail, charting his earnest rapport with the US forces with a humanizing eye. The two sides genuinely find themselves at a loss when Biden announces a rapid withdrawal at last. Words of support and deep remorse get exchanged between the American and Afghan men whom we witness to share cigars and hookah in earlier scenes, before they speedily burn all the classified documents to a crisp.

“Retrograde” is another astonishing cinematic achievement for Heineman, one that undoubtedly put both the filmmaker and his crew in danger’s way multiple times between the car bomb threats and on-approach attacks he miraculously captures on camera. The filmmaker also gains unprecedented access to control rooms that can pinpoint enemy targets with frightening precision as well as a helpless General Sadat’s flee to the UK, with US refusing to help a former ally. But Heineman’s greatest achievement is perhaps the sharp-eyed frame he puts around the selfish terms in which US vacated a senseless war, and what that has claimed from countless Afghan civilians and soldiers alike who had dreams of constructing something good and enduring in their homeland. You can see that cost on every desperate face trying to flee the sinking ship.

Elsewhere, the fascinating “A Compassionate Spy” from the legendary “Life Itself” director Steve James offers a different kind of look at US during wartime, by charting the true account of an enthralling World-War II-era spy story that this critic knew little about. The infiltrator in question is Ted Hall, a physicist who was recruited to work on the top-secret Manhattan Project at the age of 16, while he was still a prodigious junior at Harvard. The infamous task of the group was to build the first nuclear bomb in the world, before the Germans developed their own. Despite his young age however, Ted knew that such a powerful possession in US hands would be catastrophic. In fact, it would perhaps spiral a post-World-War II US into fascism. A socialist and a Soviet sympathizer unaware of Stalin’s horrors, Hall tried to front a conversation about his worries among the project’s top scientists, who collectively wrote an opposing letter to President Truman, one he never received. In turn, Hall then passed on some top-secret elements of his work to the Soviets, the same kind of information that would send Julius and Ethen Rosenberg to the electric chair in 1953. But Hall in turn was never prosecuted.

Through never-before-seen archival footage (including of Hall, filmed in the ‘90s, shortly before his passing), interviews with Hall’s widow and daughters, as well as various authors and journalists in relevant fields, James constructs a fascinating account of a real-life espionage and investigates with a keen eye why Hall was never arrested for his crime. The heart and soul of his tale is a love story that grows on the University of Chicago campus in the ‘40s after the war. At the time, Ted was a doctoral candidate; his future wife Joan, an undergrad with simpatico views on music and politics. For a while, it was a love triangle between Joan, Ted and his best friend Saville “Savy” Sax, a romantic period which James approaches with a bohemian Godardian sensibility. But it was Joan and Ted that were destined to be together in the end. Before popping the question, Ted insisted on sharing his espionage secret with his future wife, in case that would be a deal breaker for the young woman. But the couple got married and kept their secret through a five-decade-long marriage.

Regrettably, James goes the reenactment route to chart the life and times of Savy and the Halls, recruiting dramatic actors to portray these real-life personas. In their quieter moments, when the focus is on the romance—from the Halls lying on the floors of a campus chamber to listening to their favorite Mozart sonata—the reenactments more or less work, giving the audience a little taste of what these youngsters were like as they were keeping a potentially fatal secret from a government hostile to their kind. But when James works in dialogue lines, the effect is sadly amateurish, with actors who are incapable of selling the drama and tension in their equally clumsy costuming. The most glaringly unfortunate reenactment happens when the Halls, harboring secrets of their own, drive by the Sing Sing Prison where the Rosenbergs were to be executed that day. You can’t unsee the visual and tonal inelegance this scene offers.

Still, these awkward segments don’t always diminish the impact of the bigger picture, and the sweetness of hearing from the present-day Joan and her daughters, with Joan being an especially compelling interview subject. Little by little, we get a complete sense of the man Hall was—someone so ahead of his years with his sophisticated politics and humanism that he couldn’t participate in the cheery celebrations of his colleagues after they successfully detonated an atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert as a test. Insightful interviews with the likes of Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunste—authors of Bombshell, the only book about Hall’s espionage—and Daniel Axelrod, who co-wrote To Win a Nuclear War: The Pentagon’s Secret War Plans alongside Michio Kaku, also add substantial dimensions to the puzzle James intricately snaps together. “The world has come extremely close to total disaster,” Hall offers towards the close of the film, reminding the next generation to demand governmental policies that don’t put the world at risk again. He gets emotional delivering these words. You might get choked up too, knowing today what he didn’t know about the future then; especially on the heels of seeing Heineman’s non-fiction masterwork.

Tomris Laffly

Tomris Laffly is a freelance film writer and critic based in New York. A member of the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC), she regularly contributes to, Variety and Time Out New York, with bylines in Filmmaker Magazine, Film Journal International, Vulture, The Playlist and The Wrap, among other outlets.

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