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‘A Compassionate Spy’ Review: Steve James Doc Is a Nuanced Portrait of Love and Espionage



Steve James takes a break from his duties as Chicago’s documentary poet laureate with the new unscripted feature A Compassionate Spya topical and stylistic detour that still has a place within the director’s ongoing exploration of the blurry line between justice and injustice.

A Compassionate Spy borrows the look and feel of a historical espionage thriller and builds some momentum and moral complexity along the way, but it finds its real potency as a generational family drama.

A Compassionate Spy

The Bottom Line

More compassionate and complex than condemning.

Ted Hall was recruited to join the Manhattan Project when he was still a teenager. A brilliant young physicist, Ted went to Los Alamos with no clue what he would be working on, but when he learned the nature of the weapon being designed, he began to worry that if only the United States possessed nuclear technology, the post-war risks might be great. It was only 1944, but Ted Hall was already imagining the potential for a nuclear holocaust after Germany’s inevitable surrender, so he began to pass information — significant details about the implosion bomb later known as “Fat Man” — to the Soviet Union.

After the war, he met and married fellow University of Chicago student Joan, with whom he shared his interest in classical music and progressive politics. Then, as the Cold War escalated and the arrest of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg stoked national paranoia, the FBI started poking around and the family’s life changed forever.

However much I associate James with institutional interrogations of contemporary Chicago, another of his ongoing concerns has been the wrongfully accused, or victims in situations in which the law was wrongfully or questionably applied — themes that featured in his exceptional 30 for 30 movie No crossover and in the Oscar-nominated Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.

Here, he has a story that’s both juicy — it’s the third or fourth season of WGN’s Manhattan that we never got to see — and open to wildly varied interpretations. When his FBI files were released shortly before his death in 1999, the press described Hall and his friend and co-conspirator Saville Sax as traitors, and at least one person interviewed at the time argued that Hall should be or should have been executed. Many viewers will still feel this way.

But the way we look at Hall’s crime today isn’t the same as it would have been 20 years ago, or in 1955. It’s possible for crimes with heinous descriptions to have been committed — and the authors of Bombshellthe 1997 book about Hall, make it clear that the Rosenbergs were “small fish” in comparison — but for those crimes to have come from a specific context and moral imperative that play differently with the passing of time.

The documentary is sometimes clunky when it comes to laying the historical groundwork for what Hall did, relying on newsreel footage for rudimentary explanations of the Manhattan Project and whatnot. Ted and Joan Hall weren’t in the public eye at the time, so James augments a selection of archival pictures with reenactments. While he has directed a couple of narrative features (most notably, Prefontaine), this is the first time James has used reenactments in his documentary work, and he and cinematographer Tom Bergmann take an understated yet stylish approach.

The reenactments, with select hints of color bursting through the intentional period drabness, appear when Ted and Joan’s lives take on the shadings of a familiar genre. We see their early love story, punctuated with Mahler and a restrained nostalgic gauziness, played out in college quads and classrooms. We experience the discomfort of an official interrogation, the terror of leaving for a drive and recognizing an FBI tail. James doesn’t, however, use the reenactments when they aren’t necessary.

Mostly, he tells as much as possible through interviews with Joan, who remains feisty, introspective and largely unapologetic about what she views through the prism of a multi-decade love story. Ted, convinced his espionage was saving millions, acted out of compassion. Joan, who loved Ted, filters her recounting of their marriage through her compassion. In letting her tell this story, James adds a layer of compassion of his own, which won’t make the documentary popular among the “Line ’em up and shoot ’em” crowd. How many people in that crowd are currently experiencing their own turmoil when it comes to proper or even justifiable handling of classified documents and whether righteous zeal in such cases can be exculpatory? Unclear.

A Compassionate Spy really comes together in its second half when it isn’t dwelling on right or wrong, and it’s just letting some of the directly involved parties recount how Ted Hall’s actions shaped and still shape them. In addition to Joan, the documentary features two of the Hall daughters, as well as Saville Sax’s son and daughter, all still grappling with the way secrecy impacted their childhoods and the ways that the revelations about their fathers reframed everything.

The documentary does not completely avoid confronting the humanitarian toll of the Soviet regime. But it isn’t interested in doing the complicated math on the number of lives that might have been saved by the restraining of mutually assured destruction versus the countless casualties brought about by different aspects of the Cold War. The film is just compassionate and complex, instead of condemning.

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