Ted Hall had a confession to make to his fiancée Joan the night before their wedding day, a test of his nerves far greater than popping the question. He was three years removed from working at Los Alamos as part of the Manhattan Project during World War II and while she was as madly in love with him, competing with the U.S. military for his affections in order to build the atomic bomb, he couldn’t go through the marriage carrying a huge secret from her, admitting before the nuptials that he divulged secrets to the Soviet Union about his work. If discovered by the government, the Halls could face the same fate as the executed Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, especially when Ted had far more critical information than they did. And while Joan tells director Steve James in his latest film “A Compassionate Spy” that she would’ve agreed to marry Ted under any circumstances, she couldn’t possibly comprehend at the time what this would mean for their life ahead, though in fact being Ted’s soulmate, she certainly understood why he did what he did.
When James ultimately dedicates the film to those who seek peace, he makes no secret of wanting to take on that burden of understanding from the Halls, who were interrogated by the FBI about Ted’s interactions with Soviets, but never found out. The two are shown to have started that process themselves with a home video recorded near the end of Ted’s life in 1998, explaining that no individual country should have the kind of power that nuclear weaponry affords and believing that by sharing secrets with the Russians he was keeping the U.S. honest with their own arsenal. As Joan remembers, Ted was incapable of telling lies himself, making his actions particularly dangerous for the couple who quietly lived in New York and then England as Ted’s scientific knowledge was used towards cancer research, but there was both a feeling of isolation that couldn’t be prepared for and the frustration of taking a moral stand in such a way that no would ever know.
If “A Compassionate Spy” would seem to stand out as an odd duck in the filmography of the “Hoop Dreams” and “City So Real” director, a rare reflection on the past than actively looking at the present, it turns out to be far less of an anomaly when he starts interviewing Joan, as keenly interested in the relationship between her and Ted as the world affairs they actually had a hand in shaping. The film becomes a rarity in observing geopolitical history from such a humanist perspective it actually feels as if individuals can make a difference. Although Ted had no direct relationship to anything that occurred after he left the military’s employ, his story sets a fascinating framework for James to recount the tectonic shifts that happened with the implementation of the Marshall Plan, turning the Soviet Union from allies of America to adversaries, among other shifting international dynamics in the wake of World War II, careful to envision each event as the result of choices rather than inevitabilities.
Of course, James’ sensitivity towards his subjects remains as astonishing as ever and when the Halls are destined to be defined by their decisions, the vivid descriptions of them as politically engaged and sexually active shakes them out of any historical consecration as fully-fleshed out human beings with an emotional calculus as much as logic or science. (The fleeting recreations of the Halls’ relationship actually make an effective formal punctuation mark in this respect.) “A Compassionate Spy” suggests that having a strong moral conviction generally ages well and while the Halls no longer have to keep a secret, there’s the sense they are hardly the only ones to have kept the world from destroying itself without notice, as heroism is found where it’s least expected.
“A Compassionate Spy” will screen at the Venice Film Festival on September 3rd at 11 am at the Sala Corinto.