Thanks to a certain current blockbuster film, almost everyone is now familiar with J. Robert Oppenheimer, the so-called father of the atomic bomb. And while Christopher Nolan’s film starring Cillian Murphy does indeed touch upon the fact that Soviet spies worked alongside him at Los Alamos, what became of those spies is not discussed in “Oppenheimer.” However, “A Compassionate Spy,” the new documentary from Steve James (“Hoop Dreams,” “City So Real,” “Life Itself”) introduces the public to Ted Hall, one of those brilliant Manhattan Project scientists who was secretly passing nuclear secrets to Moscow.
Oh, and the timing of the theatrical release of the new film, commencing this weekend, is far from coincidental.
“We didn’t want to come out before because it would hurt ‘Oppenheimer’’s numbers at the box office. That’s a joke,” James, who is based in Chicago, jested during a recent Zoom chat. “But I think it was a smart decision to have it come out in close proximity…and I think our film provides other parts of that story.”
When Hall came to the secret base in New Mexico to work on the Manhattan Project, he had already served in the U.S. armed forces in the war and graduated from Harvard at just eighteen years of age. Among his early friends at Harvard was another brilliant student called Saville “Savy” Sax, who shared Hall’s left-leaning beliefs. “A Compassionate Spy” traces the duo’s postwar work at the University of Chicago, where they met Joan Krakover, who became Hall’s wife.
“Then by the age of 19 [Hall] made this momentous decision to pass secrets to the Soviets. It’s just kind of an extraordinary thing,” James said of his subject.
Joan Hall sat for James’s camera at her home in Cambridge, England, where she lived until passing away this summer at the age of 94. James was first introduced to Joan thanks to Dave Lindorff, the investigative reporter who was the subject of his previous film “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.” Lindorff wrote a piece about Hall, which found its way to his widow in England.
“That caused them to strike up a little bit of a friendship. And Dave said ‘I think there’s a real film here,’” James said. “I didn’t know anything about Ted Hall either. I had no idea what [footage or letters] existed of Ted himself.”
Joan Hall shared with the filmmakers her late husband’s archives, which James combed for his story. He even hired actors to portray Joan, Ted and Savy as young people in the throes of their political activities—and possibly also as a three-way.
“It felt a bit like a ‘Jules and Jim’ situation,” said James, who shares that he shot the recreation scenes in the style of that 1962 French New Wave film. “You see me on film ask about that because [Joan] opens the door—and then she shuts it pretty humorously by saying ‘some things are too private.’ But for the most part, she was extremely open.”
Joan’s reluctance to speak on camera is perhaps understandable considering that any press Ted Hall received during his lifetime tended to be negative. What Joan did share with James is fascinating all the same, he said. For in addition to all of the international intrigue, James said that the story Joan told him was, at its heart, a decades-long love story.
“I was as much sort of captivated to make a film about [the couple] as I was about” Hall alone, James said.
But much the Halls might have been in love, the fact remains that Ted betrayed his country. “A Compassionate Spy” never attempts to minimize this fact, but what James has accomplished is a nuanced examination of a man who followed his convictions to what for him was a logical conclusion. At the same time, the filmmaker acknowledges that many viewers might not see his subject in a positive light whatsoever.
“Some people have said they find the film far too sympathetic towards him. And I understand that position,” James said. “There would have been no reason to have rescued this guy from historical obscurity to just slam him for what he did.
“But on the other hand, I wanted to make sure that there was in the film room for people to come to that kind of a conclusion, whether it’s Savy’s son Borea having misgivings about what they did…or Ted himself expressing some regrets about what he had done, which is in the film.”
The one party who has absolutely zero remorse, James said, was Joan herself, who continued to believe in her husband’s choices right up until the end. The director said he was able to show Joan “A Compassionate Spy” before her passing in July, and she showed up for screenings staged at the Cambridge Film Festival too.
“She was able to attend that screening and had a lot of friends there. It was a lovely experience,” James said.
The filmmaker has no illusions, in terms of reach “A Compassionate Spy” will not match “Oppenheimer” but he hopes Nolan’s epic will drive more people to learn more about the lesser-known parties whose actions resulted in the success of the Manhattan Project. Including Ted Hall.
“There’s a lot of aspects to this story that come through in the telling of Ted’s story—and of course the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and some of the opposition to that,” said James. “The story was, the U.S. entered the war and we were heroes. V-Day, the bomb. But we had to do it. It’s sort of forgotten that the war would never have been won had it not been for the Soviet Union.”
“We never learned that; I never learned that.”
Given the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, James at present has no plans to even attempt to bring the film to Russia—even if this is part of their history too, however complicated given Stalin’s purposeful starvation of millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s known as “the Holodomor.”
“My understanding is that Ukraine has always been a battleground,” James said, adding that the film will be screening in Western Europe, however.
“In my view [Ted Hll] acted upon conviction and he acted with great courage,” he said of his complicated film about the compassionate spy. “Whether you think he was naive and what he did was wrong, I think those two things for me are indisputable.”
“A Compassionate Spy” opened in select theaters this weekend.