Steve James Compassionate Spy
Credit: Magnolia Pictures
by Andrew Dignan Featured Film Spotlight

A Compassionate Spy — Steve James

August 1, 2023

Cannily scheduled to be released only a few weeks after Oppenheimer, documentarian Steve James’ (Hoop Dreams) A Compassionate Spy positions itself as a fitting companion piece, expanding on one of the more surprising elements of the Nolan film: the intersection between the U.S. Communist party and the Manhattan Project. Exemplified by a brief exchange informally known as the “Chevalier Incident,” and often pointed to as the reason Oppenheimer was denied Top Secret clearance after the war, the crux of the issue was the belief amongst many in leftist circles that the United States should share intelligence about the atomic program with its (then) ally the Soviet Union, either as a show of solidarity or as to hasten the end of the war. Oppenheimer allegedly rebuffed an overture from friend and Berkley professor Haakon Chevalier to serve as a conduit to the USSR in passing along nuclear secrets — although he initially failed to disclose the conversation to military brass — but history is already well aware of others based out of Los Alamos who ultimately passed along top secret intel to the Soviets, most notably the German theoretical physicist Klaus Fuchs. Less well-known — which is to say nobody famous portrays him in Oppenheimer — is Theodore Hall, a prodigal physicist who was recruited by the U.S. government at the age of 17 to aid in the development of the atomic bomb. He, like Oppenheimer, shared socialist leanings and worried what it might mean for the world if the United States maintained a monopoly on nuclear weaponry.

It’s for this reason that Hall, who died in 1999, claimed he passed along closely guarded technical information and schematics to the Soviet government — employing a friend from university, Savvy Sax, who shared his politics, to serve as his go-between — about the nature of the bomb. Believing that the US would descend into a fascist regime if it alone possessed this sort of weapon, Hall is alleged to have been the first person to share with the Soviets the very nature of an implosion bomb. His double-dealings having gone undetected for years; Hall suddenly found himself under intense scrutiny in the wake of the Red Scare, drawing FBI surveillance, while both himself and Sax were brought in for official questioning multiple times during the late ’40s and early ’50s. Set against the backdrop of the Rosenbergs’ trial, Hall miraculously evaded arrest, ultimately relocating with his wife Joan and three daughters to the UK, where they lived in semi-anonymity until the mid-’90s, when Theodore decided to finally go on the record.

James’ documentaries tend toward the more humanist and less muckraking side of the nonfiction spectrum — his most recent work prior to this was a three-part miniseries for ESPN about affable former NBA superstar Bill Walton — and his sympathies clearly lie with Hall (it’s right there in the film’s title). A Compassionate Spy never questions Hall’s loyalties to his country nor the self-professed altruism of his actions, but it does leave itself exposed to accusations of being Pollyannaish about geopolitics. The most critical voice in the entire film belongs to Sax’s now-elderly son, who only briefly notes his disapproval over what his father and Theodore did, as well as a stray archival clip of a rather ornery former Los Alamos scientist who argues that Hall should have been summarily executed for his actions. When James asks Joan how she can reconcile providing Stalin with nuclear secrets in light of his well-documented human rights violations against his own people, she all but shrugs it off before the film quickly pivots to depicting America’s propaganda efforts to villainize Communism. Most frustratingly, the film never even broaches the question of whether nuclear proliferation without guardrails established by an international governing body — which is ultimately what Oppenheimer argued in favor of — or the still looming threat of mutually assured destruction has actually made the world a safer place. Once you’ve accepted Hall’s argument for the necessity of his actions, it’s merely a matter of dramatizing his methods and marveling at the remarkable life he lived.

On the subject of dramatization, James has also made the curious decision to utilize actors to appear in overly-emphatic reenactments. Always undergirded by first-person narration, we witness idyllic glimpses of Theodore and Joan’s courtship (with Savvy an ever-present third wheel) or watch the couple frantically dispose of Communist reading materials hidden around the house. It works to break up the visual monotony of the talking heads format, but functionally it simply reiterates what we’re already being told, and has the unintended consequence of making the film feel something like an episode of Unsolved Mysteries (there’s certainly nothing as formally adventurous as the sort of impressionistic re-enactments favored by Erroll Morris). The film’s greatest achievement, then, is in presenting and exploring the Halls’ marriage as a true partnership of equals, with Joan every bit as politically involved and ambitious as her husband. After initially feeling sidelined when the family moved from Chicago to suburban Connecticut, freely admitting that she did a lousy job keeping a clean house and that she found the local wives and their incessant discussions of raising children and “labor pains” tedious, Joan discovers a renewed sense of purpose upon arriving in Cambridge; taking up Russian literature, teaching Italian, and becoming involved in the Women’s Liberation Movement. Having outlived her husband by decades, Joan emerges as the film’s co-protagonist, honoring her husband’s legacy as an unlikely advocate for global peace, while having also carved out an impressive life for herself as both an academic and political activist. One can wish the film were a little more skeptical of its subject’s rationale or was willing to interrogate the merits of their actions — to say nothing of the lasting implications of speeding along the Cold War) — but James still does admirable work in presenting a curious portrait of two people who lived their values at a time when it was especially dangerous to do so.

DIRECTOR: Steve James;  CAST: —;  DISTRIBUTOR: Magnolia Pictures;  IN THEATERS & STREAMING: August 4;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 41 min.