Given the fragile state of world peace at the moment, it seems like a good time for the latest film from Hoop Dreams director Steve James, a little-known piece of Cold War history that could potentially have devastating consequences today. Unfortunately, James’ Venice Film Festival is out of competition title A compassionate spy just doesn’t deliver the drama and suspense you’d expect from the story of a mild-mannered American scientist who gave sensitive nuclear secrets to the Russians out of a mixture of idealism and naivety.
The subject is Harvard graduate Theodore “Ted” Hall, who at age 18 became the youngest person to work on the Manhattan Project under Robert Oppenheimer, developing nuclear weapons at Los Alamos. Hall died of cancer in 1999, but not before giving a series of video interviews in the mistaken belief that he would not be around to see them broadcast. He was a soft-spoken, sanguine person who was not concerned with making good statements (he describes his first introduction to the nuclear weapons program without much fanfare or embellishment, adding, “I guess it was exciting”). But the use of the atomic bomb on Japan in 1945 both frightened him and pricked his conscience. “200,000 people had been incinerated,” he noted, “and no one seemed to care much.”
Hall’s immediate thought was that such destructive technology should not be in the custody of a single nation, and with his Harvard friend Savile Sax he laid out a plan to share details of his work with the Russian government. The retelling of this is surprisingly dry, using actors to reconstruct key scenes, but then this is hardly a traditional espionage story and Hall was no James Bond. It seems rash now, but James tries to paint the mood of post-war America, where the Russians were seen as allies and the so-called “Red Scare” was a couple of years away from being concocted by Senator Joseph McCarthy.
After the deed is done, but… nothing. It seems impossible to imagine now, but even though the FBI had him in their sights, and at least once in their custody, Hall never faces any consequences for his actions (even Sax’s own son is surprised). Instead, Hall lived into his mid-70s without apparently fearing a knock on the door, and his wife Joan, speaking on his behalf, seems remarkably relaxed about it, too. A brief digression into the story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg—who did much the same thing and got the electric chair for it—leaves something of a bad taste, especially when it appears that Hall’s high-flying brother, himself a senior figure in America’s military-industrial complex, may have inadvertently shielded him due to his own proximity to government secrets.
Hall’s story is therefore extraordinary, but unfortunately it is not to be told about it, and although it seems fair not to create action and tension when there was none, A compassionate spy yet fails to engage fully with the enormity of the subject.
With the war in Ukraine still ongoing and Putin’s nuclear artillery casting a large shadow over Western democracy, it should be a good time for a film like this to reflect on the true impact of Hall’s decision (was it really a victory for compassion) and humanity or just youthful folly?). It doesn’t really help that Hall himself never seemed to come to grips with his legacy; asked if he felt proud of what he did – and in a very pointed tone, by a particularly challenging British interviewer – he doesn’t even seem to struggle with the question. “It would be nice to be proud,” he shrugs, “but I’m not a proud person.”