‘A Compassionate Spy’ Review: A Gripping Biography of a Manhattan Project Outlier

Steve James's documentary methodically and empathetically breaks down why wunderkind scientist Ted Hall turned to espionage while developing the atom bomb.

A Compassionate Spy
Courtesy of Participant

Just before director Christopher Nolan’s upcoming “Oppenheimer” plants a fixed image of Ted Hall in the popular imagination, along comes Steve James’s sensitive, studious documentary “A Compassionate Spy” to preemptively set any records straight. Unpacking the life and work of the prodigious teenage Manhattan Project physicist who passed key information about the endeavor to the Soviet Union — cuing an adulthood dogged by suspicion and secrecy — the film demonstrates its director’s characteristic nose for strong material and knack for gripping, straightforward storytelling. If the filmmaking is more televisual than in James’s best work, with its flourishes limited to some unnecessary dramatized passages, that should be no impediment to “A Compassionate Spy” commanding a sizable audience on multiple platforms. 

“It would be nice to be proud, but I’m not a proud person,” says the septuagenarian Hall, in interview footage captured not long before his death in 1999. It’s a statement typical of the scientist’s soft-spoken humility, though half a century on from the most historically consequential work of his career, the mere suggestion of pride in his actions is boldly defiant. Only in the last two years of his life did Hall publicly admit to his role as an atomic spy during the Second World War, never backing away from his stance that it was the right thing to do, as tabloids drummed up stale outrage and accusations of treason. Two decades into a century that Hall didn’t quite live to see, with any media hysteria over the subject mostly quietened, “A Compassionate Spy” gives both a more level-headed and emotionally nuanced account of his motivations.

Though Hall still feels warmly present in James’s film via candid, self-effacing archival interviews, our chief narrator for this personal portrait is his wife Joan, now in her nineties and still a sharp, vivid storyteller. It’s to the film’s considerable credit that she’s treated not merely as a conduit to her late husband but as a fully compelling, collaborative figure in her own right, making the doc not just a one-man biography but a moving study of a marriage weathering internal anxieties and external pressures. 

James spends scant time, in fact, on Hall’s upbringing as the exceptionally gifted younger son of working-class Jewish parents in New York City, instead beginning proceedings near his graduation from Harvard in 1944 — aged just 18, having skipped multiple grades in his schooling. A bright future lay ahead for the aspiring biophysicist, though he was plagued by pessimistic expectations of post-war unrest — worries hardly allayed when the fresh-from-college teen was recruited to work on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos. Fearful of an American monopoly on atomic weapons and a consequent descent into fascism, he felt it his moral responsibility to divulge detailed information about the Fat Man plutonium bomb and its development to Soviet intelligence. 

In Hall’s words, it was less a matter of assisting one country than of “preventing an overall holocaust which would affect the entire world.” Mindful of potential viewers for whom this is ancient history, “A Compassionate Spy” is perhaps most effective in retroactively founding those fears: Well-chosen propaganda films and other archival material from the era evoke a political climate of ugly, vindictive patriotism in the United States, reaching its zenith following the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, an atrocity that prompted a mood of grim national jubilation Stateside, as did the horrific execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg — convicted on charges similar to those Hall would have faced if found out. “If you think the U.S. is not a good place now, it was worse then,” says Joan. It’s a simple enough sentiment that nonetheless lands a quiet gut-punch.

The meat of the film, however, is in the life Hall led after his youthful espionage, his vast, potentially ruinous secret shared only with Joan — whom he met as a masters student at the University of Chicago, and married not long after — and their mutual friend Saville Sax, who acted as Hall’s go-between with the Soviets in the first place. Stylized dramatic sequences — shot by DP Tom Bergmann in a desaturated style that emulates midcentury photography — play up a kind of love triangle between the three; later, as semi-informed FBI agents begin to hound the Halls for information, forcing them to conceal their Communist and Progressive Party loyalties and eventually flee the country, these performed stretches of the film take on the genre tint of a paranoid thriller.

It’s proof that Hall’s story could neatly fit a prestige biopic template — even if most screenwriters would probably feel obligated to juice up the latter half of his life, in which he moved his family to Britain and pursued a quiet, largely unbothered career in Cambridge academia before his late-life public confession. In “A Compassionate Spy,” however, these slickly produced dramatic interludes mostly distract from the film’s more revealing and immediately affecting interview material — which, while filmed in standard-issue talking-heads format, bring up the film’s most complicated and searching questions of duty, fidelity and the burden over time of living a lie for the one you love. 

James ends his film with a pointed reminder that the threat of nuclear warfare is with us still, as a title card states that none of the world’s nine nuclear powers have signed the UN’s 2021 treaty to ban nuclear weapons. That there are nine rather than one is the ambiguous legacy Hall shares with his fellow atomic spies: “A Compassionate Spy” persuasively argues there is both safety and danger in numbers.

‘A Compassionate Spy’ Review: A Gripping Biography of a Manhattan Project Outlier

<p>Reviewed at Soho Screening Rooms, London, Aug, 23, 2022. (In Venice, Telluride festivals.) Running time: 102 MIN.</p>

  • Production: <p>(Documentary) A Participant presentation of a Mitten Media, Kartemquin Films production. (World sales: Cinetic, New York City.) Producers: Mark Mitten, Dave Lindorff, Steve James. Executive producers: Diane Weyermann, Jeff Skoll, Tim Horsburgh, Gordon Quinn.</p>
  • Crew: <p>Director, writer, editor: Steve James. Camera: Tom Bergmann.</p>
  • With: <p>Joan Hall, Ted Hall, Ruth London, Sarah Hall, Sarah Sax, Boria Sax, Joseph Albright, Marcia Kunstel, Daniel Axelrod</p>