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Film Review: Documentary unearths the compassion of an American spy

A composite photo of Ted Hall which shows paperwork and his official badge for The Manhattan Project. The badge reads K 19, Theodore A. Hall, Junior Physicist, Los Alamos, N. Mex
Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Theodore Hall was the youngest physicist on the The Manhattan Project and the subject of the film The Compassionate Spy. Hall and his wife revealed his early work as a spy to accelerate the race to build the bomb after his concerns of a nuclear showdown became a reality.

In his latest documentary, A Compassionate Spy, filmmaker Steve James asks the audience to do something incredibly difficult – it asks that viewers not only observe the past, but that they try to understand what it was like to be in that world when these monumental events took place.

The story is about Ted Hall, who it turns out is the guy who gave fundamental information from the Manhattan Project to the Soviet Union. He gave them the design for a critical part of the bomb, and one estimate is that it helped the Soviets develop their bomb five years earlier than they would have without his help.

For decades, no one knew what Hall had done. He was investigated but never prosecuted. After the Manhattan Project ended, Hall worked on cancer research at the famed Sloan-Kettering Institute in New York, and then at Cambridge University in England, until he died in 1999.

In no way does the film excuse or underestimate what Hall did, but the picture does try to show how different the world was in the 1940s, and why Hall did what he did. Steve James’s work includes Hoop Dreams, his 1994 film that follows two young men in Chicago who hope someday to play professional basketball. James is good at presenting complex situations without telling the audience what to think.

The core of the film is an interview with Hall’s widow Joan. In her 80s, she’s lively and perceptive. And she shared her husband’s concern for the Russians.

During an interview Joan Hall sits in a living room wearing a lime green shirt and plaid long sleeve shirt.
Magnolia Pictures
In A Compassionate Spy, Joan Hall shares the history of Ted Hall's decisions to share Manhattan Project secrets. Joan Hall said she agreed with her husband's decision and still believes it saved a lot of lives.

We forget now that during World War II, American considered the Soviet Union a friend and ally. Magazines and movies described the fine and courageous Russian people. Many scientists believed that the need to defeat the Nazis demanded that we share information with the Soviets and make the creation of the atom bomb a combined effort.

Joan admits that when she and Ted finally realized that Stalin was a murderous horror, they understood that giving the Soviets information was a mistake, but she is adamant that their feeling was always for the Russian people. They believed that if only the U.S. had the bomb, the Russian people were in grave danger.

In a remarkable 1998 interview with a British journalist, Ted is frail and dying of cancer and Parkinson’s disease, but he still insists the Russian people needed protection. He gasps when asked why he did it. "I guess a major factor would be compassion . . . it’s a stab at a description anyway," said Hall.

This shows a birds eye view of a man and woman laying down on a Persian rug, both wearing cream shirts and with the man wearing navy slacks and the girl wearing a plaid skirt. They are embracing affectionately.
Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
In a still from A Compassionate Spy, actors reenact a scene from Ted and Joan Hall's courtship. The Halls both believed that they needed to share secrets to the Soviets to save the Soviet people.

Ted and Joan Hall are not what you might expect. They’re not angry; they’re rational and soft-spoken. They didn’t want to hang anyone. They didn’t hate the U.S. government. They wanted peace and safety for everyone in the world. Sweet recreations of their courtship show a delightful and playful couple. Ted was only 18 when he was recruited to go to Los Alamos. He was an idealistic kid who was a genius of a physicist.

A Compassionate Spy makes a good companion to Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. It has a stronger sense of the political climate during World War II. It’s clearer on the idea that we dropped the bombs on Japan more to warn the Soviets than to defeat Japan. Apparently then-General Eisenhower thought that Japan was ready to surrender if the country could save face.

In the terms and climate of 2023, what Ted did is inexcusable and horribly naïve. But in the context of that time and place, things look different, and the movie offers a good caution about being too sure that what we think we know is true – both for the Halls then and for us now.

A special screening for this film will be on Aug. 9 at the Dairy Arts Center. A Compassionate Spy is also available to stream at home starting August 4. Find details for streaminghere.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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