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Profile of a Traitor
Russian agent Ted Hall gets a sympathetic treatment in “The Compassionate Spy.”
You may think you’ve heard everything about the mechanics of the nuclear dawn by now, given the raves for Oppenheimer, the gripping biopic on the “father” of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the spindly physicist who headed the top secret Manhattan Project in the New Mexico desert.
But there’s a new film coming out about another scientist who worked at Los Alamos, one that is far less ambitious than Oppenheimer yet every bit as relevant to the real story of triumph and tragedy in the resulting age of mutually assured destruction.
The Compassionate Spy is a documentary about Ted Hall, a math and science wunderkind from Upper Manhattan who was only 18 when Oppenheimer recruited him to work on the implosion bomb in 1943. Within a year, Hall betrayed the trust of Oppie, his colleagues and his country by walking into a Soviet trade mission in New York with a load of bomb secrets—this, in a deeply misguided effort to forge world peace by short-circuiting an American nuclear monopoly.
Brought to the screen by producer-director-writer Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Life Itself), The Compassionate Spy is constructed around Hall’s own, tortured depiction of his treachery, amplified by the reminiscences of his wife and expert takes from their biographers. It treats Hall, the son of Jewish Russian immigrants whose theft of atomic secrets enabled the Soviets to cut years off their own bomb program, with more empathy than he deserves. A longtime espionage suspect, Hall managed to elude arrest for the rest of his life and kept his secret for 50 years, until he knew he was dying of Parkinson’s Disease and renal cancer and confessed. Hall gets no mention in Oppenheimer, even though one of its subplots is the search for Soviet agents at Los Alamos.
The Compassionate Spy opens with Hall’s wife, Joan, interviewing her frail and obviously ill husband during a June 1998 video session at their home in Cambridge, England. It then jumps ahead to James’ interview with Joan in 2019, twenty years after Hall’s death, in which she weaves the story of their lives together over cinematic reenactments and file footage of the era, from their early years through their courtship, marriage, and their constant fear of discovery and arrest.
Joan also describes their life-defining relationship with Saville Sax, Hall’s roommate at Harvard, who not only entered into a love triangle with them but recruited his friend for the Soviets and later became a clandestine courier of his secrets.
“I loved them both,” Joan Hall says. When her husband confided he was spying for the Russians Joan, a fellow traveler, said it didn’t matter— she would have loved him even if he had killed someone. That’s a whole lotta love.
Also prominent are the reminiscences of Hall’s daughters, now middle-aged and thoroughly British, having lived there for sixty years. Sorting through old photos and memorabilia with their mother, the women describe how they came to terms with and understood their father’s motivation to balance the nuclear playing field.
The Compassionate Spy also shows images that Oppenheimer does not: the aftermath of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the charred human remains. As images flash across the screen of the horrific radiation scars and the deformities of those who survived, physicist Daniel Axelrod, Professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan, claims that “since hundreds of thousands of people died in this atomic bombing,” U.S. officials have inflated the claims of how many American soldiers might have died in a U.S. invasion. “That number of American troops continually got inflated…until finally years later Truman would say, ‘we saved a million lives of American troops because of the bombing,’” says Axelrod, coauthor with fellow physicist Michio Kaku of To Win a Nuclear War: The Pentagon's Secret War Plans.
The Compassionate Spy does not deal extensively with the broader issue of spying at Los Alamos—which was penetrated by a half dozen Russian agents. Hall was interrogated early on by the FBI, but its investigators said they felt they never had enough substance to make an indictment stick. Despite suspicions, Hall managed to thwart an FBI lie detector session by emphatically denying he was a spy. That was a lie, but he apparently did tell the truth, however, when he said that he did not know Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who would eventually be convicted and executed on espionage charges. Such was the Soviets’ compartmentation that Hall was confounded to learn the Rosenbergs were spying—and doubted they had done as thorough a job as he had.
The story of Hall’s treachery is not new. The Washington Post reported on Hall’s work for the Soviet Union in 1996 after the public release of the so-called Venona Documents, a series of U.S. intercepts of Soviet communications. Robert McQueen, an FBI agent who interrogated him in 1951, said he "was convinced that Hall was guilty, but I could never develop enough evidence to prosecute him," reported The Post.
Details of Hall’s betrayal, including his virtual confession on tape, were also reported in 1997 by Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel in their book, Bombshell: The Secret Story of America's Unknown Atomic Spy Conspiracy. The authors appear in the film.
Striking in the film is the couple’s fear of being discovered and their criticism of capitalism. They also grew tired of being monitored and followed by the FBI, and once discussed with a Soviet handler the option of being exfiltrated to the Soviet Union.
“Secretly,” Joan says, “I rather relished the idea of going to Russia and learning Russian, like a fool.” Instead, they decided in 1962 to emigrate to Britain. Hall took a research position at Cambridge University, where he became a pioneer in biological X-ray technology. His brother Edward was an Army Air Force colonel who later became known as the father of the nuclear-capable intercontinental missile. Joan says he knew about his brother’s espionage.
Hall said his decision to pass secrets to Moscow was based on his compassion for humanity and to “protect the Soviet people,” who were suffering immense casualties as they fought off the Nazi German invasion virtually alone. He thought that sharing the bomb would somehow prevent a future nuclear war.
(Oppenheimer, who likewise feared nuclear war, ironically argued that the bomb had to be dropped on Japan and its destructive power witnessed by all so that no one would be tempted to use it in a war again.)
“Were you scared” about spying against the United States? his wife asked Hall in the 1998 video.
“I can’t remember being frightened,” he answered in a monotone, without emotion..
“You didn’t think they might execute you?”
“No,” Hall answers with a nervous laugh. “No.” Hall understood clearly the consequences of being found out, but whether or not we agree with his choices, he wants us to know that he was acting on principle. In one scene he relates his torment as he followed the trial of the Rosenbergs, who were arrested as part of an FBI rollup of Soviet spies in 1950 and executed on June 19, 1953.
Hall’s wife describes their distress the night before the execution, as they were driving to a party in New York and passed close by Sing Sing, where the doomed couple was being held. Not for the first time, Joan said, her husband mentioned turning himself in to save the Rosenbergs.
“By no means” will you do that, Joan told him, recalling the moment through clenched teeth. It probably would not have saved the Rosenberg’s anyway, she adds.
“He told me beforehand he was going to offer to confess his role in the hope of saving their lives. I told him absolutely [not]—don’t be silly. It wouldn’t save them and it would destroy us. And he accepted my view of things. So he gave up the quixotic idea of sacrificing his life and my life.”
She had a point, says the biographer Joseph Albright:“The Rosenbergs were small fish compared to Ted Hall.”
The film wears its anti-nuke passions on its sleeve. Toward the end, we see familiar footage of the still shocking aftermath of the bombs that were dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki—replete with corpses and people suffering radiation burns.
“The world has come extremely close to real, actual, total disaster,” Hall says in the 1998 interview. “People, not the government [must] be prepared to insist, to demand, to compel government policies which don’t put the world at risk again.”
A Compassionate Spy ends with an epigraph rendered in large white type on a plain black screen that reminds us: “The United States remains the only nation to have used nuclear weapons in warfare.”
All well and good. There is every reason to raise the issues surrounding nuclear tests, the U.S. first strike policy, and proliferation—especially at a time whenVladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Kremlin’s Security Council, are breezily threatening Ukraine with nukes. But the filmmaker allows the extensive, and uncritical interview footage with the Halls to run on too long. Their smugness in their self-defense, however, is more than tiring: It’s wrong. ###
A Compassionate Spy opens Aug. 4 in select theaters, and on Apple TV+, Amazon Prime, and other streaming services.
Peter Eisner is an award-winning reporter and editor, formerly at The Washington Post, Newsday, and the Associated Press.