A Compassionate Spy – 58th Chicago International Film Festival Review

A Compassionate Spy, 2022.

Directed by Steve James.
Featuring Theodore Hall and Joan Hall.


The incredible story of Manhattan Project scientist Ted Hall, who shared classified nuclear secrets with Russia.

The latest effort from celebrated documentary filmmaker Steve James (Life Itself, Abacus), A Compassionate Spy, follows Ted Hall, responsible for physician work on The Manhattan Project, sharing that information with the Soviet Union to keep the superpowers at a level playing field. Recruited at 18, Ted was thrilled to contribute until he saw he backed out after observing test sites of how much damage they were capable of, fueling his stance that no country should have unchecked power and feared the rise of another Nazi Germany.

Told through archival interviews before Ted’s passing in 1999 (also briefly touching on his late-life lousy luck, which included Parkinson’s disease and cancer), A Compassionate Spy is primarily told from the perspective of his widow Joan Hall (deceased as of 2021) with conviction, love, and a dash of humor.

Across several interviews and cuts to historical footage (and the occasional unnecessary reenactment of certain situations with amateurish actors), Joan makes a blisteringly convincing case that her husband made the right choice and saved lives. The same goes for the footage before Ted passed, in which he thoughtfully reveals the motivation behind his actions.

A controversial figure nonetheless, it’s easy to get behind Ted’s reasonings, all as the film explores his connection to The Manhattan Project (including a beautifully tender moment where Joan recounts some secrets she was divulged amid getting engaged), interviews with his daughters, a look at the close friendship turned rivalry between him and college roommate Saville Sax, his relocation to Cambridge after subsequently being investigated by the FBI,  and some bigger picture disturbing political schemes. 

Steve James’ approach to A Compassionate Spy is on the talking-heads conventional side but still winning due to its riveting nature; there’s a sense of propulsive forward momentum across these interviews, arriving at an important message. And let’s face it, you’re all dying to see Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, so you might as well whet your appetite with A Compassionate Spy.

A Compassionate Spy is the Opening-Night selection for the 58th Chicago International Film Festival. Tickets can be purchased here.

Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★  / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★

Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at [email protected]


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