A Compassionate Spy

Christopher Nolan’s recent blockbuster about ‘the father of the atomic bomb,’ J. Richard Oppenheimer, has reinvigorated interest in the Manhattan Project, where German physicist Klaus Fuchs was revealed to have spied for the Russians.  He was convicted in 1950 and served nine years in prison.  But it wasn’t until 2019 that the project’s youngest scientist, an 18 year-old American recruited from Harvard University, was revealed to have also shared secrets with the Soviets, driven by a strong sense of morality.  With access to his children, those of his best friend ‘Savy’ Sax, whose family immigrated from Russia and who encouraged and assisted him, and, most importantly, his wife of 52 years, Oscar nominated documentarian Steve James reflects on how history was changed by “A Compassionate Spy.”

Laura's Review: B

I never expected to come away from a documentary about a spy who gave nuclear secrets to the Russians wondering if perhaps he did the right thing, but Steve James’s documentary on Ted Hall will make you think about what the course of history might have been if the U.S. had been the only one with this fearsome power.  James uses Ted and Joan Hall’s love story to frame his subjects as the human beings they are, the better to understand where they are coming from, but never resorts to rose-colored glasses.

James illustrates how a personal history impacted the global one by intercutting Joan’s 2019 recollections with recreations of her memories and interview footage from different time periods including a 1998 documentary on the Cold War and a VHS tape Joan had made asking Ted questions before he died in 1999.  Joan, who at 18 had been determined to remain single for ten years, is practically giddy remembering her early days with Ted, having met him after the war in 1947 at the University of Chicago and almost immediately abandoning her pledge.  But their love affair was a three-way triangle, Ted’s buddy Savy a constant presence.  But it was Ted who proposed to Joan, who immediately accepted.  Then he told her what he had done, and why, giving her the opportunity to back out.  She never did, enduring years of being tailed by the F.B.I. (Hall was questioned, eventually just boldly walking out of the interrogation room) and having her phone bugged, always there to tell Ted to stick to his story when his hatred of lying would cause him to waver.

Recreations in documentaries can be a dicey thing, but James uses them skillfully, young actors resembling their counterparts accompanying Joan’s narration.  There is a particularly harrowing moment when the couple, having moved to New York where Ted now worked in biophysics, must attend a work related party, driving by the prison where Julius and Ethel Rosenburg were about to be executed.  (Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel, the authors of ‘Bombshell,’ note that the Rosenburgs were ‘small fish’ compared to Ted Hall.)

There is some hint that jealousy may have played a part in the spying, Ted, not Savy, being recruited to Los Alamos and Ted, not Savy, winning Joan’s hand.  It was Savy who urged him to give the implosion bomb plans to the Russians and both men’s children grapple with their father’s histories.  James fleshes out Hall’s moral conundrum with forgotten facts about post-nuclear America that are quite chilling, suggesting what might have been had Russia’s development of nuclear power not been a check on the U.S.  “A Compassionate Spy” relates a little known story with major historical impact.

Robin's Review: B

Anyone with even an inkling of modern American histories knows about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and their execution for treason for selling nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. Director Steve James tells the far lesser known story of Ted Hall, a young, idealistic physicist on the Manhattan project who also sold out to the Russians in “ A Compassionate Spy.”

I always go on that I am a student of history, but I am embarrassed to say that the man and his mission to Moscow never showed up on my historical radar. And, director James deftly fills in that gap in my knowledge of that piece of American history.

The documentary focuses on interview material with Hall’s wife, Joan, who provides much of the detail that fleshes out their story. In a nutshell, Hall was hired by the US government in 1944 at the tender age of 18 years as a junior physicist assigned to designing the nuclear bomb called “Fat Man,” an implosion device.

He was radicalized early on and, on a sham visit to NYC for his 19th birthday. Made contact with a Soviet contact. This culminated in those designs falling into Russian hands. Here is where the story of the Rosenbergs and the Halls split off in very different directions. For the former, it was death. For the latter, it meant a comfortable career in England, away from McCarthyism and criminal conviction.

What I got most from “A Compassionate Spy” is the “compassionate” aspect. Hall fervently felt that a US monopoly on nuclear weapon technology was a dangerous thing, that if only one power had it, a worldwide dictatorship would take place with America in charge.

While that is a distinct possibility, I question Hall’s idealistic – and very naïve – view of the world’s future at that time. Well, he had the right idea of all or none, with "the none" being the US destroying the technology forever. The negative side of Hall’s decision is we now face a crazy Vladimir Putin sitting on thousands of nuclear weapons with the power to use them.

Magnolia Pictures opens “A Compassionate Spy” in select theaters and on VOD on 8/4/23.