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'A Compassionate Spy' Review – Venice Film Festival – Deadline

‘A Compassionate Spy’ Review – Venice Film Festival – Deadline

Given the fragile state of world peace at the moment, it seems like a good time for the latest movie from hoop dreams director Steve James, a little-known piece of cold war history that could have devastating consequences today. Sadly, James’s Venice Film Festival out-of-competition title a compassionate spy it just doesn’t deliver the drama and tension you’d expect from the high-stakes story of a mild-mannered American scientist who passed sensitive nuclear secrets to the Russians out of a mix of idealism and naivete.

Subject is Harvard graduate Theodore “Ted” Hall, who, at age 18, became the youngest person to work on the Manhattan Project under Robert Oppenheimer, developing nuclear weapons at Los Alamos. Hall died of cancer in 1999, but not before giving a series of video interviews in the mistaken belief that he wouldn’t be around to see them air. He was a low-key, optimistic individual who didn’t make any big statements (he details his initial introduction to the nuclear weapons program without much fuss or embellishment, adding, “I guess he was thought-provoking”). However, the use of the atomic bomb in Japan in 1945 alarmed him and stirred his consciousness. “200,000 people had been cremated,” he noted, “and no one seemed to care much.”

Hall’s immediate thought was that such devastating technology should not be in the custody of a single nation, and with his friend from Harvard, Savile Sax, he hatched a plan to share details of his work with the Russian government. The retelling of this is surprisingly dry, using actors to reconstruct key scenes, but this is not a traditional espionage story and Hall was not James Bond. It seems rash now, but James is at pains to paint the mood of postwar America, in which the Russians were seen as allies and the so-called “Red Scare” was a couple of years away from being invented by Senator Joseph McCarty.

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However, after the deed is done…nothing. It seems impossible to imagine now, but even though the FBI had him in their sights, and at least once in his custody, Hall never faces any consequences for his actions (even Sax’s own son is shocked). Instead, Hall lived into the mid-’70s seemingly unafraid of a knock on the door, and his wife Joan, who speaks on his behalf, also seems remarkably relaxed about it. A brief digression on the story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who did more or less the same thing and got the electric chair for it, leaves something of a bad taste in the mouth, especially when it seems that Hall’s high-flying, a leading figure in the American economy. military-industrial complex, he may have inadvertently protected it due to his own proximity to government secrets.

So, Hall’s story is great, but sadly his storytelling isn’t, and while it seems only fair not to create action and suspense when there really wasn’t, a compassionate spy however, he does not fully commit to the enormity of his subject.

With the war in Ukraine still ongoing and Putin’s nuclear artillery casting a long shadow over Western democracy, it should be a good time for a film like this to reflect on the true impact of Hall’s decision (was it really a victory? for compassion? and humanity or just juvenile madness?). It doesn’t really help that Hall himself never really seemed to understand his legacy; When asked if he was proud of what he did, and in a very scathing tone, by a particularly challenging British interviewer, he doesn’t even seem to struggle with the question. “It would be nice to be proud,” he shrugs, “but I’m not a proud person.”

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