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A Compassionate Spy

"The Rosenbergs were small fish compared to Ted Hall." - Joseph Albright, co-author of Bombshell: The Secret Story of America's Unknown Atomic Spy Conspiracy (1997)

Considering the evidence about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed for espionage on June 19, 1953, and about Ted Hall, the prodigy physicist recruited into the Manhattan Project at age 18, Albright is right. Ted Hall passed on far more crucial information to the Soviets and was never arrested (although he was interrogated by the FBI and harassed and trailed for years). The Rosenbergs were executed in a blaze of publicity, while Hall moved on to do important research at Sloan-Kettering and other institutions. He "hid" for decades. 

Years later, when his "spy" past was revealed in declassified documents, an elderly and very ill Ted Hall was interviewed by the BBC. When asked why he did what he did, Hall thinks for a long time before answering, "Compassion." His action can only be understood in the context of his time, requiring a willingness to listen to where he was coming from. Things are not black and white (even saying these words would be treasonous to some). Steve James' documentary, "A Compassionate Spy," takes Hall at his word (a little too much), but establishing what "compassion" meant in Hall's particular context is the organizing principle of "A Compassionate Spy."

The documentary is primarily composed of long interviews with Joan Hall, Ted Hall's wife for 50 years, now in her nineties. Two of their daughters join the conversation, going through their father's letters, and sharing memories. Joan is a captivating interview subject. The past is still very close to her. She talks about events from 70 years ago as though they happened yesterday.

Authors and physicists are also interviewed, including the aforementioned Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel, co-authors of Bombshell, the first account of Ted Hall's spy activities, written just before Hall died in 1999. Albright and Kunstel provide a wider perspective of the period, while Joan Hall takes us back to her politically active free-spirited youth. Ted Hall admitted in an interview he saw the world through "pinkish" glasses: As an atheist and a Socialist, he wanted the Russian Revolution to spread to the rest of the world. He wasn't alone in this doomed hope.

The Manhattan Project was cloaked in secrecy; much was kept from even the scientists working in the labs. However, it was clear to Hall almost immediately that "something gruesome and horrible was being constructed." He naively assumed that Russia—America's ally at the time—would be looped into the research. He was a scientist and believed in sharing information. He also felt that America's "monopoly" on this dangerous technology would be very bad for the world. Hall's radical college friend, Saville Sax (who plays a large part in the narrative, and his two children are interviewed in the documentary), suggested Hall try to pass on details of the implosion bomb to the Russians. It didn't take much convincing. Hall was legitimately (and rightfully) fearful of what would happen if this bomb was eventually dropped on actual people.

Two-time Oscar nominee Steve James is very good at establishing the context of World War II and its immediate aftermath, the start of the so-called Cold War, the propaganda of the Red Scare, and the wild fluctuations of the American Left. He uses archival footage (note the chilling "blooper" when President Truman starts laughing in the middle of announcing America dropped the bomb on Hiroshima) and propagandistic songs like "Atomic Power," paranoia engulfing the "free world" after the war ended.

The true nature of the Soviet system, and Stalin's monstrosities, were clear for many to see, despite the "useful idiots" parroting Soviet propaganda, sometimes in the pages of the New York Times (see: Pulitzer-Prize winner Walter Duranty). The cynical Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939, in which Russia and Germany secretly decided to carve up Poland, sent shock waves. When Hitler invaded Russia in 1941, the pact was rendered null and void, but many onlookers never recovered from the betrayal. The Halls, however, felt betrayed much later when the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia to quash the "Prague Spring." It’s important to underline that many people saw the truth 30 years earlier (see: George Orwell, who also saw the world through "pinkish” glasses but was clear-sighted enough to get the memo about what was happening in 1936-38 during his experiences in the Spanish Civil War.).

James uses re-enactments to show us Ted and Joan’s life. While they are gently and respectfully done, they're unnecessary, particularly when you have as strong a storyteller as Joan Hall, who paints vivid pictures with her words. The re-enactments don't serve the same purpose as the re-enactments in, say, Errol Morris' "The Thin Blue Line," where they underline the unreliability of witness testimony. Here, they are interruptions, not illuminations.

"A Compassionate Spy" is strongest in digging into the archives to give audiences who might not know this cultural history a real feel for what was happening. The Cold War didn't just happen. It was built by Wall Street and industrialists (something which Ted Hall predicted during his time at Los Alamos). The very recent past where America was pro-Russia was unthinkable in the 70 years that followed. James shows fascinating clips from Michael Curtiz's 1943 film "Mission to Moscow," starring Walter Huston and Ann Harding, featuring a flattering portrait of Soviet society as well as a damn near cuddly Stalin. (If you're interested in a deeper dive into Hollywood's interpretation of Russia in the late '30s and early '40s, pre-Cold War, you should definitely check out Farran Smith Nehme's in-depth essay Shadows of Russia: A history of the Soviet Union, as Hollywood saw it.)

James' specific and empathetic gaze is felt in all of his documentaries: "Hoop Dreams," "The Interrupters," "Abacus: Small Enough to Jail," and "Life Itself." His interview subjects reveal themselves to the camera in intimate ways, a tribute to who he is as a person and an interviewer. "A Compassionate Spy" covers a lot of material, and even with some missing nuance and a lack of skeptical or critical voices, it contains enough ambiguity—particularly from Ted Hall himself—to open up discussion on a wider ground.

Now playing in theaters.

Sheila O'Malley

Sheila O'Malley received a BFA in Theatre from the University of Rhode Island and a Master's in Acting from the Actors Studio MFA Program. Read her answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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Film Credits

A Compassionate Spy movie poster

A Compassionate Spy (2023)

Rated NR

102 minutes

Cast

Theodore Hall as Self (archive footage)

Joan Hall as Self (archive footage)

Director

Writer

Cinematographer

Editor

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