The latest film from acclaimed documentarian Steve James, A Compassionate Spy, comes with a fascinating subject: the spy who leaked nuclear information from the Manhattan Project to the Soviet Union, therefore ensuring that America could not establish a nuclear monopoly on the world. It’s easy to see why James would be drawn to the spy, Theodore “Ted” Hall, and his wife Joan as he has often been interested in using individuals as the framework to explore larger societal issues. Utilizing a hybrid of recreations, archival footage, and modern-day interviews, James crafts a portrait of a man, a relationship, and the sheer weight of the decision to betray your country to save the world.
With Ted having passed away just before the turn of the century, the framing device being built around conversations with his wife ground his story in everyday humanity, instead of reducing his actions to historical sensationalism. There is an interesting structural act created by Ted’s death and inability to record new footage for the project. While there are archival interviews with him, they are surprisingly infrequent and the film often depicts Ted as an enigma, entirely existing based on others’ perceptions of him and his actions. It’s a structure slightly reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, which also employs the feat of making its protagonist feel like an amalgamation of differing perspectives. There are plenty of moments where they speak their own words and tell their own stories in both films, but the overall feeling is one of mystique and unfamiliarity. Neither Ted nor J. Robert Oppenheimer will ever have their own individualistic humanity matter more than what they caused, even in projects designed around their lives.
This structural choice is exacerbated by the differences between the footage of Ted before his death, and Joan 20 years after his passing. More calm and reflective, Joan is conscious of what the project entails and what sympathies are being expressed. The footage of Ted is completely focused on explanation and justification for his actions, lacking in that human texture that Joan is able to provide while sitting with James. A key moment that defines this idea is a sequence of Ted expressing that he made his choices out of sympathies to the Soviet people, before cutting to Joan in the present explaining that Ted wouldn’t have spied if he’d known the extent of the Soviet government’s actions. Is that true, or is it Joan trying to make her husband seem better considering the perception of the USSR by history? In one sequence, she talks about how she once daydreamed of moving to Russia and learning the language, before immediately doubling back and saying how naive she was. Ted and his motivations for his actions will always remain slightly hidden or unknown, because there is context and regret and justifications that are only being expressed by others who knew him. But we are also unclear when it comes to Joan, in spite of her supposed transparency, because we cannot determine the full truth of her perceptions.
A Compassionate Spy’s thesis of unknowing comes through prominently in the use of recreations. There are hired actors providing dramatizations of key moments in Ted and Joan’s lives, as well as much of the conflicts he faced because of his spying. These recreations are defined by Joan’s stories and perspectives on the situations––most of them feature narration by her as the footage plays out exactly as she describes. The recreations often portray Ted in the best light, brave and justified. Their acting is stilted and the shots exactly replicate what Joan is describing, even in situations where she is describing events that she was never present for. This decision leads to A Compassionate Spy feeling extremely, overwhelmingly subjective in its presentation. Instead of coming across as an objective, analytical view of Ted’s life and experiences, it ends up a tapestry of ancient memories, intricately crafting a portrait of a relationship and a man that might not be the exact one who breathed. These are the most interesting qualities the documentary offers, and it could have reached true non-fiction greatness if it didn’t also succumb to the traditional talking-heads form alongside it. While the other perspectives are understandably featured to provide historical context about the Manhattan Project and its aftermath, there is a sense of unnatural dissonance whenever they appear, as if the film is torn between navigating the slippery slopes of subjectivity, and becoming a more stoic historical document.
The most unsettling and compelling question A Compassionate Spy asks is: how much can you truly know someone? Joan has been apart from Ted for around half of the time they were together, and is describing memories from decades and decades ago. How many of these recreations are close to the truth of the situation, and how many are just stories recycled through decades of abstracted re-telling? It’s key that Ted’s true answers to why he did what he did and what he feels about it are left to the end of the film, and do not provide the clarity that Joan provided on his behalf. Ted is not the true subject of this story, it is Joan who fills that role with exceptional ease and disarming charm. Is she the true master of manipulation of the couple, or just a loving wife who wants to tell the truth? In the end, just like with most people, no one from the outside will never know the total truth about Ted, Joan, and the particulars of why they did everything they did. All you have is what they show, and what you choose to believe.
A Compassionate Spy is now in theaters and on VOD.