- Movie Rating -

A Compassionate Spy (2023)

| August 3, 2023

Released at virtually any other time on the calendar, Hoop Dreams director Steve James’ new documentary A Compassionate Spy might have flown through the critical circuits and gone unnoticed.  But here, just two weeks after the release of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is a film that effectively be paired along with his three-hour brobdingnagian epic.  Both are about men who were involved with the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, tasked with building an atomic bomb before the Nazis.  However, the twist is that while Oppenheimer exited the project under suspicion by the government for his communist associations, Ted Hall was really an American at Los Alamos working as a Soviet spy.

Given that, the movie is a challenge.  Hall, who died in 1999, was an intellectual whose thinking on the matter was to believe, much like Oppenheimer, that the U.S. Government was opening a Pandora’s Box of global catastrophe, not by building the bomb, but by keeping it potentially as a bargaining chip over which is could hold global domination.  He believed simply that no nation of the world should have sole ownership of these weapons.  He was 18-years-old when the United States government recruited him to work on The Manhattan Project wherein he helped to determine the critical mass of one of the atomic weapons – nicknamed “Little Boy” and to conduct experiments on the implosion system for the other – nicknamed “Fat Man.”

All the while, we know what he was doing at Los Alamos, but the movie challenges us to decide what we think of Hall.  He was a man who betrayed his country, who sold out to the enemy and who watched, among others, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg arrested, tried, convicted and executed by the Federal Government, all the while doing basically the same crime and was never arrested though he was interrogated and habitually investigated and harassed for years by the government.

It might sound like a horror show, of watching terrible people doing terrible things for terrible reasons, but James holds judgment and lets the story be told from a first-person perspective.  He clearly sympathizes with Ted Hall for what he did and why he did it, and asks us to do the same.  Hall is not portrayed here as a sneering villain, rather as a very warm, very human man who understood what he was doing and why he was doing it.  We get that through his backstory, largely told by his wife Joan who turns out to be a fascinating woman, his wife of 50 years now in her early 90s, she is interviewed extensively by James but she never feels like a stiff talking head.  Her recollections about her time with her husband and their life together give you the indication that he remains close to her heart and that she never stops thinking about him.

In that, we are asked to consider the individual.  What Hall did was abhorrent and, yes, should have been punished and persecuted.  But we are asked to consider the man that she knew, the person that he was, and eventually to the reasons that he did what he did.  Most, I think, may walk away from this documentary with the feeling of Hall as a monster, but when you focus on Joan, you find yourself at a sort-of impasse.  At a time when we are ready, willing and able to cancel people who engage in unacceptable behavior, we are asked to be compassionate, at ask ourselves who these people are and what their motivations are.  It’s challenge, and this is the kind of film that could spark a very creative debate.  

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2023) View IMDB Filed in: Documentary