New Written Review from Mike Crowley on You’ll Probably Agree: ‘A Compasionate Spy’

What would you do to save the world? If your name is Theodore Hall, you may be associated with Communism. Hindsight can be a bitch. Especially when the U.S.S.R. turns untrustworthy and your own Allies wants your head for treason when in reality, all you’re guilty of is compassion. Told through archival interviews and recreations, veteran Chicago documentarian Steve James offers a sympathetic, complex glimpse at a polarizing man. 

Theodore Hall was a brilliant man. A Harvard + University of Chicago graduate, Ted’s gift for physics earned him a spot on the Manhattan Project. While working on the atomic bomb, Ted decided to leak information on the bomb to the Russians in hopes of saving their lives during World War II. His wife, Joan, states some problematic opinions on the surface. Joan remarks on her affirmation of Karl Marx’s book, agreeing with it and displaying a degree of pro-Russia sentiment. Since this documentary is about real people, Steve James doesn’t twist Joans’ words around in the editing room to make her sound like a U.S.S.R. sympathizer.

Instead, James lets us see things through Joanne and Ted’s perspective, understanding how they were trying to save the lives of not only the Soviets but anyone who can be annihilated with a nuclear weapon. Naivete plays a role in Ted’s decision-making. Now with access to Nukes (thanks to Ted’s loose lips), the Soviets can turn the U.S. into a parking lot. At the time, Russia was our ally; but after World War II, things quickly changed for the worst between U.S. and U.S.S.R. relations. If Ted Hall’s tale is worth something other than compassion, it’s age-hiring. If someone is nineteen, they shouldn’t be trusted with W.M.D.s no matter how brilliant they are. However good in intention, selling secrets to the Russians spells doom for today.  

Throughout the film, Ted seems cold and almost impersonal until its final interview, where Ted’s emotions get the best of him in the film earning the picture its title. A Compassionate Spy is styled like a History Channel flashback. Many of its events are dramatized with actors playing the fictional version of the interview subject’s counterparts. By using actors and re-creating settings, documentarian Steve James introduces a new flair for the dramatic in his work that’s often more cinéma vérité mixed with social injustice. In ACS, James goes for a more conventional narrative approach while introducing an unconventional side to a story of a man who’s been villainized by his country. 

Where most narratives about espionage would have a tense, visceral feel, A Compassionate Spy uses a relaxing motif to tell a story about catastrophe. Theodore’s records playing classical movements serve as the soundtrack to the story easing the view into the mindset of its relaxed, genius protagonist. In a documentary, you can tell the more nuanced aspects of a story that would otherwise be overdramatized within a narrative film’s constructs to keep the audience’s attention span engaged. By incorporating his usual calming, nonjudgemental touch, Steve James achieves the cinematic effect of listening to reason instead of shutting out those we disagree with.

Although I can’t entirely agree with Jones’ enthusiasm towards Marxism, I can understand her point of view in the context of the time period and narrative. Steve James asks us not to judge to put ourselves in Ted Hall’s shoes. What would you do if you were in his position? Would you have the courage to sell secrets to a foreign country for the greater good? Despite who he gave the information to, Paul’s overall goal was to stop the development of nukes; unfortunately, telling the Russians about Nukes could lead to catastrophic results that I pray I won’t live to see. 

There are no easy answers surrounding Theodor Hall’s actions. Only questions stacked upon more questions Steve James offers a human portrait of a man who regrettably worked on the most inhumane known device known to humanity. Life is not filled with easy answers, just more complicated questions. A good documentary raises those questions making us see people instead of objects. A Compassionate Spy certainly is a work made by a filmmaker with a history of deep heart for his subjects. Steve James’s recent film is no exception to a long list of beautiful, empathetic pieces. 

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