Search F News...

CIFF 2022 | ‘A Compassionate Spy’ Confronts The Nuclear Question Head On

Chicago documentarian Steve James’s new film is no John le Carré novel. 

By Entertainment

Photo courtesy of Participant Media.

Since the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States during World War II, the nuclear question has been hanging over all of our heads. Should they be used? Should they exist? Who should have them? All of these questions are masterfully explored in director Steve James’s new documentary, “A Compassionate Spy.” The film focuses on Ted Hall, a former physicist for the Manhattan Project, and his contact with Soviet officials during the development of the nuclear bomb.

The struggle with nuclear bombs is, that if one country has them, it forces every other country to acquire them, regardless of one’s personal feelings on the matter. This is precisely the reason why Hall, a leftist, felt compelled to give America’s nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. James tackles this struggle head-on. For one, he makes the view of the United States very clear. The nuclear bomb was more than just a military tactic, it was meant to assert US dominance over the USSR. post-WWII. With an ascendant Soviet Union garnering praise for their sacrifices fighting the Nazis, this was a very simple and effective way to establish the United States as the real global superpower, and to delegitimize the Communist agenda.

To Hall, this was simply not right. Many of the scientists on the Manhattan project agreed with him — if any government in the world possessed nuclear arms capabilities, it would put the whole world in danger. Thus, he had to act. He gave nuclear secrets to the Soviets in order to level the playing field, and stop a potentially fascist government from destroying the world with nothing to stop them. Hall’s experience as a Jewish man who joined the war effort to fight the Nazis deeply colors his thoughts on the matter. He never wants to see anything like this ever again, especially with the potential threat of nuclear destruction.

While this is enough for a whole film, what would a movie be without some romance? Of course, at the University of Chicago, Ted meets a girl, Joan. They fall in love, get married, have kids… the whole deal. While this is certainly a spy movie, it’s contrasted by the sweet, nerdy relationship between Ted and Joan. But this nuclear secret is still lurking, the tides are changing on Russia, and the FBI starts knocking on their door.

This is no John le Carré novel. Yet, we do get some spy movie tropes peppered in. James portrays the immense guilt of betraying their home country weighing on Ted and Joan to great effect. The execution of fellow (but unrelated) spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg only compounds this fear. But this does not shake Ted, or Joan, who was just as politically passionate as her husband was. While Ted’s views on Russia certainly evolved as more information came out of the USSR — James makes a point of focusing on the Prague Spring of 1968 as a particular breaking point — he never regretted what he did.

Political crimes are a very interesting topic; one that a great deal of art has been made about, and will continue to be made about. In many cases, it is the FBI, a determined reporter, or a hard-boiled detective that is the hero. In this case, it’s the reverse. In a lot of ways, Hall’s story mirrors that of Edward Snowden, or Chelsea Manning — people who risked their lives in order to release information that was being purposefully concealed by the United States government. The villain of this movie is the United States government, a gesture that used to be commonplace in American cinema, but has faded out of practice since the late 70s. What I enjoyed most about the film was James’ direct criticism of our modern failure to point out the government’s inadequacies. Nuclear proliferation was not something that just happened. It was created to reaffirm US dominance, and not for any other reason. James spends a great deal of time debunking the myth that “dropping the bomb ended the war by 10 years and saved thousands of American lives,” and this is where the film is at it’s strongest — when he is diving into the archive, unearthing how the discourse around nuclear bombs has always been centered around the interests of the United States, whether it was during its development in the 1950s, or today.

James is one of America’s most celebrated documentarians, and more specifically, one of Chicago’s. This film is another welcome addition to his filmography. The discussion around nuclear bombs will always be a pressing one, and with that comes a lack of history. But we cannot separate what is happening now from what happened before us. James unearths a forgotten story to show us just how long this conversation has been going on.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

14 + 4 =