Venice Review: Steve James’ ‘A Compassionate Spy’

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 piece of little-known history from the cold war that could potentially have devastating consequences today. Sadly, James’ Venice Film Festival out of competition title A Compassionate Spy just doesn’t deliver the drama and tension you might expect from the high-stakes story of a mild-mannered American scientist who passed sensitive nuclear secrets to the Russians out of a mixture of idealism and naivety.

The subject is Harvard graduate Theodore “Ted” Hall, who, at 18, became the youngest person to work on the Manhattan Project under Robert Oppenheimer, developing nuclear weaponry in 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 aired. He was a low-key, sanguine individual not given to making great statements (he details his initial induction into the nuclear weapons program without much fuss or embellishment, adding, “I guess it was exhilarating”). However, the use of the atom bomb on Japan in 1945 both alarmed him and pricked at his conscience. “200,000 people had been incinerated,” he noted, “and nobody seemed to care much.”

Hall’s immediate thought was that such devastating tech should not be in the custody of a single nation, and with his Harvard friend Savile Sax he hatched 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 take pains to paint the mood of postwar America, in which the Russians were seen as allies and the so-called “Red Scare” was a couple of years away from being confected by Senator Joseph McCarthy.

After the deed is done, however… nothing. It seems impossible to imagine now, but although the F.B.I. 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 to his mid-70s without apparently fearing the knock on the door, and his wife Joan, who speaks 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 and got the electric chair for it — does leave something of a bad taste, especially when it seems 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 extraordinary, then, but sadly the telling of it is not, and although it seems fair not to create action and suspense when there really was none, A Compassionate Spy nevertheless fails to full engage with the enormity of its subject.

With the war in Ukraine still going on and Putin’s nuclear artillery casting a large shadow over Western democracy, it ought to be a good time for a film such as 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 really seemed to get to grips with his legacy; asked whether he felt proud of what he did — and in a very barbed tone, by an especially challenging British interviewer — he doesn’t even seem to wrestle with the question. “It would be nice to be proud,” he shrugs, “but I’m not a proud person.”

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