‘Life Itself’ Director Steve James on Uncovering a Shocking Nuclear Secret in ‘A Compassionate Spy’

The master filmmaker employs dramatic recreations for the first time to tell a fascinating American spy story.

“A Compassionate Spy”
Courtesy of Participant

High-profile espionage cases in the post-war period often invoke the grisly fate of the Rosenbergs, the first U.S. citizens to be convicted and executed by electric chair for sharing atomic secrets with the Soviet Union in peace time. But in the new documentary “A Compassionate Spy,” filmmaker Steve James tells the incredible story of Manhattan Project scientist Ted Hall, who shared classified nuclear secrets with Russia — and got away with it.

The Participant and Kartemquin Films-produced documentary, which has its world premiere in Venice on Sept. 2, is one of a number of films at this year’s festival that tackle the topic of nuclear disaster: Projects from Noah Baumbach’s feature adaptation of Don DeLillo’s “White Noise” through to Oliver Stone’s on-the-nose documentary “Nuclear” all contemplate some aspect of our nuclear past and future.

“There will be people who will look at what Ted did and say, ‘I don’t think he should have done it,’” the Oscar-nominated “Hoop Dreams” director tells Variety.

“There will definitely be people watching this film that will come to the conclusion that Ted, however well-intentioned, did the wrong thing. But that is not [Hall’s wife] Joan’s opinion. She thinks he had courage to stand up and do what he thought was right, at great risk.”

The New York-born Hall was only 19 when he was recruited to join the Manhattan Project — the now infamous group of scientists who developed the atomic bombs dropped by the Americans on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

When Hall gained more understanding of the bomb’s grave consequences, however, he began passing information on the creation of the device to the Soviet Union through sources in the American Communist Party. The leaks, Hall explains in the documentary via archival interviews, were intended to level the playing field of intelligence between America and Russia, to deter each other from rushing toward nuclear warfare.

Hall was questioned by the FBI but never convicted, most likely due to the fact that his brother was an important rocket scientist for the U.S. government. “It’s one of those things that in the Hollywood version of the story, when you get to that part of it, you’d be like, ‘Oh, come on. That’s not true!’” exclaims James.

Hall eventually relocated to Cambridge, U.K., with his family, who still live there today, more than 20 years after his death in 1999. It’s there that James came to know Ted’s widow Joan, who is the primary contributor to the film, after being connected through his Oscar-nominated “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” contributor Dave Lindorff and producer Mark Mitten.

Joan was initially reluctant to participate in the doc, having been disappointed when attempts to tell Ted’s story in years past never quite amounted to anything aside from the book “Bombshell” by Marcia Kunstel and Joseph Albright (both of whom are interviewed in the film). Following the book’s release, Leonardo DiCaprio was reportedly interested in playing Ted in a biopic of the physicist, but the project “never went anywhere,” says James.

The director says Joan eventually agreed to participate because “here was an opportunity, in a different way than a book that’s long gone, to tell Ted’s important story and get it out there.”

“A Compassionate Spy” was also an opportunity to tell Joan’s side of their relationship, which is one of political engagement, resistance and feminism during a time when such notions were radical for women. “She was such a woman out of time — very left in her politics, and determined to be very active in that, and precociously intelligent,” says James.

The documentary is largely based around interviews with Joan, as well as sit-downs with Ted that the couple generated themselves “for posterity” before he died. In addition, for the first time in his lengthy career in documentary, James employs high-level recreations with actors — a decision the veteran filmmaker did not take lightly. These are most prominent in the early part of the film, which details Ted and Joan’s courtship (pictured above).

“A lot of times, when documentaries will fake stuff, they’ll pull in archival footage that’s not really the archival footage for what’s being talked about, but it can kind of pass for it, because it’s set in the same time or same place,” explains James.

“And, you know, they’re totally ethically appropriate — but they’re cheats. And there would be no way to do that with these stories. It just felt like this was the first time in a documentary where I felt we needed to bring these things to life for the viewer to really get a sense of what happened.”

“A Compassionate Spy” is being shopped to buyers from Venice, and will also play Telluride. The fall premieres mark the first time James has formally brought a movie to either festival. Doc makers generally target Sundance, SXSW or even TIFF, but James felt the experiment of a Venice and Telluride launch may set the film up for a quicker distribution route.

“If the stars align, either because you have distribution in place, or you get it quickly in place, you could even conceivably be out before the end of the year, or you’ve got the option of building for the following year for a planned distribution release,” says James. “I think it can afford you some flexibility.”

“A Compassionate Spy” premieres in Venice on Sept. 2 at the Sala Grande.