To read the whole review in The Decider (it’s worth it! and they’ve also got a the official trailer embedded in it), go here.
Here are some particularly good parts of John Serba’s incisive Nov. 30 review and his parting recommendation:
“The documentary A Compassionate Spy (now streaming on Hulu) arrived nearly in concert with Oppenheimer, both being about men who developed the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, and suffered some deeply troubling ethical dilemmas. Director Steve James’ (Hoop Dreams, Life Itself) doc profiles one of Robert Oppenheimer’s underlings, Ted Hall, a physics wunderkind who was recruited for the Manhattan Project at only 18 years of age, and ended up being an “atom spy,” leaking U.S. atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. His justifications were as follows: He believed scientific discoveries should be apolitical and not beholden to one country. He believed if both countries had the bomb, they’d stalemate, and be less likely to use it. And he believed the U.S. planned to bomb Russia, and that his actions ultimately saved lives. Of course, the implications of his actions run far and wide, and James, profiling Ted and his wife Joan Hall, cracks open a can of worms so deep with speculation, I’m not sure we can see the bottom of it…”
“..Ted and Joan married, had children, moved to Connecticut and lived mostly normal lives, if you take away the constant paranoia. Ted and Sax were questioned by the FBI, released, and hounded for years; they were followed wherever they went, their phones were bugged and the Halls’ only saving grace was the fact that Ted’s brother was a major cog in the government’s development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (yes, wow). You won’t be surprised to learn they closely followed the news about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the infamous couple who were executed for being atom spies for Russia, and every time Ted considered coming clean, Joan convinced him otherwise. They relocated to England when Ted got a position developing electron microscopes at Cambridge University…”
Warning: Watching A Compassionate Spy might make you feel like you’re wrestling a polar bear who’s tag-team partner is an orca. Is Ted Hall a hero or a traitor? Note to everyone everywhere: You don’t need to answer that question. He can be one or the other or both or neither. And although the film is heavy with Joan’s perspective that her husband’s actions were noble-minded, we can still walk away with mixed feelings about the guy, who comes off as a soft-spoken man with a conscience and strong convictions. Agreeing with him isn’t necessary. You’re better off embracing the notion that cognitive dissonance is a constant in life, that holding two contradictory thoughts in your head at once isn’t a wishy-washy weakness. It’s an acceptance of the complexity of truth, that questions exist for which there are no definitive and satisfying answers….
This documentary drills into the details, and Joan’s deeply compelling narrative keeps us transfixed. The reenactments are sweetly rendered, and her reminiscences always seem fond, even when she and Ted endured the paranoia of the FBI following their every move. And the subtext emerges: Joan and Ted’s relationship was ultimately strengthened by the adversity that was a result of their steadfast convictions. A Compassionate Spy is a love story as much as it is a history lesson or a spurring of political and philosophical debates. We walk away from the doc certain that Ted believed his motives were spurred out of compassion for human life, and that trumped the idea that he was betraying his country. Did Ted Hall and the other “atom spies” make the world a better place, or did they make it more dangerous? The film doesn’t insist we answer that; it only asks us to contemplate it.
And finally, Serber’s recommendation:
“A Compassionate Spy is a gripping, must-see documentary, one of the best. of 2023. STREAM IT. “
NOTE: ‘A Compassionate Spy is now streaming on Hulu, which is featuring it and offering it on their special ‘free trial.’ The film can also be streamed on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Vudu, and Google Films.