“A Compassionate Spy” comes to the M.V. Film Center on Sunday, August 27. This remarkable documentary tells the story of Ted Hall, the Manhattan Project physicist who is much less well-known than “Oppenheimer,” the film about the “father of the bomb” that played last month.
Written and directed by two-time Oscar nominee Steve James (“Hoop Dreams,” 1994), this is the story of the brilliant physicist who was recruited into the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, N.M., at age 18. It is mostly told by his wife Joan, now in her 90s, and a lively moderator.
James uses archival footage, re-enactments, and interviews with the children of Hall and of Hall’s college friend, Saville Sax, to tell the remarkable story of a man who deserves better. In Roger Ebert’s review of “A Compassionate Spy,” he quotes the following: “The Rosenbergs were small fish compared to Ted Hall.”
Hall, who died in 1999, was an atheist and socialist at a time when Russia was an American ally. Once at Los Alamos, Hall quickly realized the truth about the ongoing development of the atomic bomb there. It threatened to create a worldwide disaster. Believing that it was best to put bomb knowledge in both hands, he began to communicate secretly with the Russians about details of the Manhattan Project. He thought it would be a safeguard against another war.
The film begins with Hall’s early life, how both he and Sax were Jewish, and how Hall learned from Sax to love Mahler and Mozart. Once at Los Alamos, Hall worked on the implosion bomb. His wife Joan described the work as exhilarating. As an example of the positive national approach to the Russians, Life magazine put them on its cover. General MacArthur said, “The scale and grandeur of the Russian effort mark it as the greatest military achievement in all history.”
During this era of WWII, because the U.S. suspected Japan was seeking some way to surrender, dropping the bomb was deemed unnecessary. The letter outlining this allegation was said to never reach Pres. Truman. An American invasion of Japan, however, was feared to cost the death of 20,000 U.S. soldiers, and an expense of $200 million.
Hall knew that American industrialists and Wall Street figures were involved in the decision-making that led to the cold war. He also wondered if the Rosenbergs’ execution in 1953 might have been avoided if he had confessed to being the spy that he was. His wife Joan talked him out of it.
When the FBI began interrogating Hall, he refused to answer, and gathered all his leftist materials and tossed them in a river. He spent a year at Cambridge, England, where he continued his work in Vernon Ellis Cosslett’s electron microscopy laboratory.
One of the more fascinating aspects about this film is that Ted’s brother was Ed Hall, a military colonel and engineer who worked as the military’s chief rocket researcher. Little was known about the friendly relationship between the brother Ted who was a spy and his military brother Ed.
Hall and his wife felt they were in such danger of discovery that a move to the Soviet Union was possible. Instead, he took a job at Sloan Kettering Institute in New York. The FBI, and later the CIA, gave up investigating Hall. Although the U.N. voted to make the use of nuclear weapons illegal, none of the nations with nuclear power signed onto it.
The incredible, relatively unknown cultural history, with Ted Hall as its central figure, has been captured eloquently in this film. It is worth the time and energy necessary to watch it.
Information and tickets for “The Compassionate Spy” are available at mvfilmsociety.com.