Telluride Film Festival 2022: Retrograde, A Compassionate Spy | Festivals & Awards

Elsewhere, the fascinating “A Compassionate Spy” from the legendary “Life Itself” director Steve James offers a different kind of look at US during wartime, by charting the true account of an enthralling World-War II-era spy story that this critic knew little about. The infiltrator in question is Ted Hall, a physicist who was recruited to work on the top-secret Manhattan Project at the age of 16, while he was still a prodigious junior at Harvard. The infamous task of the group was to build the first nuclear bomb in the world, before the Germans developed their own. Despite his young age however, Ted knew that such a powerful possession in US hands would be catastrophic. In fact, it would perhaps spiral a post-World-War II US into fascism. A socialist and a Soviet sympathizer unaware of Stalin’s horrors, Hall tried to front a conversation about his worries among the project’s top scientists, who collectively wrote an opposing letter to President Truman, one he never received. In turn, Hall then passed on some top-secret elements of his work to the Soviets, the same kind of information that would send Julius and Ethen Rosenberg to the electric chair in 1953. But Hall in turn was never prosecuted.

Through never-before-seen archival footage (including of Hall, filmed in the ‘90s, shortly before his passing), interviews with Hall’s widow and daughters, as well as various authors and journalists in relevant fields, James constructs a fascinating account of a real-life espionage and investigates with a keen eye why Hall was never arrested for his crime. The heart and soul of his tale is a love story that grows on the University of Chicago campus in the ‘40s after the war. At the time, Ted was a doctoral candidate; his future wife Joan, an undergrad with simpatico views on music and politics. For a while, it was a love triangle between Joan, Ted and his best friend Saville “Savy” Sax, a romantic period which James approaches with a bohemian Godardian sensibility. But it was Joan and Ted that were destined to be together in the end. Before popping the question, Ted insisted on sharing his espionage secret with his future wife, in case that would be a deal breaker for the young woman. But the couple got married and kept their secret through a five-decade-long marriage.

Regrettably, James goes the reenactment route to chart the life and times of Savy and the Halls, recruiting dramatic actors to portray these real-life personas. In their quieter moments, when the focus is on the romance—from the Halls lying on the floors of a campus chamber to listening to their favorite Mozart sonata—the reenactments more or less work, giving the audience a little taste of what these youngsters were like as they were keeping a potentially fatal secret from a government hostile to their kind. But when James works in dialogue lines, the effect is sadly amateurish, with actors who are incapable of selling the drama and tension in their equally clumsy costuming. The most glaringly unfortunate reenactment happens when the Halls, harboring secrets of their own, drive by the Sing Sing Prison where the Rosenbergs were to be executed that day. You can’t unsee the visual and tonal inelegance this scene offers.

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