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“It’s Also a Love Story”: Steve James Discusses ‘A Compassionate Spy’

By Dan Schindel

Two people lying on the floor in an office with dark brown hard wood floors, dark brown wooden chairs. One person is wearing long dark pants with a tan short sleeve button up shirt. The other person is wearing a dark plaid skirt with a white shirt sleeve top, ankles socks, with dark brown shoes.

A scene from 'A Compassionate Spy,' a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

In films like Hoop Dreams (1994), Stevie (2002)and The Interrupters (2011) and television series like America to Me (2018) and City So Real (2020)Steve James has established himself as one of the preeminent observational documentarians in the US. Over nearly 30 years, he’s chronicled social change in Chicago via various ordinary citizens, from aspiring basketball players to antiviolence activists. In a departure for James, his latest film, A Compassionate Spy, is a real-life espionage thriller about Theodore Hall, a young physicist on the Manhattan Project. Fearing the global ramifications of a single country holding a monopoly on nuclear weapons, Hall passed information about the construction of atomic bombs to the Soviets. Built mainly around video interviews Hall gave near the end of his life in the 90s, new interviews with Hall’s widow Joan, and reenactments of their lives during and after World War II, the film weighs the moral calculus Hall put into his radical choice and its possible fallout.

Ahead of A Compassionate Spy’s release in US theaters and VOD on August 4, Documentary spoke to James over Zoom about the long interview process that brought the film to fruition and the vicissitudes of collaborating with a subject. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

DOCUMENTARY: This is a departure from the kind of subject matter you've tackled in most of your previous documentaries. What led you to Ted Hall?

STEVE JAMES: Journalist (and a producer on the film) Dave Lindorff wrote a piece about Hall that got the attention of Joan Hall, Ted'syou'veSpy'sHall'she's widow, who reached out to him. I'd interviewed Dave during Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (2016)and he approached me about doing a film. I knew nothing about Hall, I wasn't looking into a film about nuclear war, but I was fascinated by how this incredibly young man—a teenager, really—found himself at Los Alamos, working on the bomb, and then took such an extraordinary step to voluntarily become a spy. When I met Joan, I was even more convinced because I was so taken with her passion, her intelligence, her recall, and her commitment to Ted. This is certainly a story of espionage and nuclear war, but it's also a love story.

D: How much time did you spend with Joan?

SJ: We first interviewed her in 2019, and then the pandemic hit. We continued to work on the film in various ways. I returned in 2021 to interview her again, and we finished the film in 2022. I was in regular contact with her. During editing, I always make a habit of sharing the cuts with the main subjects to get their feedback—not give them editorial control, but let them see what we've been up to and hear what they have to say. She was a very engaged viewer and had a lot to say and offer to that process. She passed away only about a month ago.

D: What did she offer? How did she shape the film?

SJ: She and her daughters were quite outspoken with their advice. They talked about the context that when Ted went to work on the bomb, he was motivated by the fear of Nazi Germany getting the bomb, and they didn't think that was entirely clear in an earlier cut. There are a lot of examples like that, just more clarity on motivations and the timeline. There was also the sociopolitical aspect. Joan was a very engaged person up to the end of her life, and she had studied her history. When she saw how we were trying to weave history into her and Ted's personal story, she wanted to make sure we accurately reflected what they thought at the time.

D: How long have you sought subject feedback for your films?

SJ: All the way back to Hoop Dreams. Different films elicit different levels of engagement. I've shown films to the main subjects, and they've basically been happy, while other subjects have been very involved. But the films always get better as a result of this process. I've never once regretted going doing this. I've never understood filmmakers who say that, for journalistic reasons, they can't share anything with their subjects. If you're an everyday journalist writing a story, I don't expect you're going to share it with me and make sure I'm happy or solicit my feedback. I'm realistic about that. But when you spend a lot of time with people telling their stories, and you're that involved in their lives, I feel like it's something you owe them.

D: Most of your documentary work tends to be in an observational mode. Films like this or Life Itself (2014)which are more archival, stand out. Do you actively prefer the observational, and what about a subject stirs you to make that exception?

SJ: I love observational filmmaking. To me, it's the most consistently exciting and revealing filmmaking you can do. It's also way more labor-intensive. When you do a film like Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters, or City So Real, you make a major time commitment to be out in the field. With films like this or Life Itself, there's such a strong historical aspect that I think demands more talking-head interviews and archival research. I don't make them a habit, but I like it when the opportunity comes along. I'm like a lot of filmmakers; I may have a certain style or approach that I gravitate to, but I also like trying different things. Abacus is a courtroom drama on one level, and I'd never done that before. This film is the first time I've used reenactments, recreations, and it was kind of fun to try that. I'm always trying to find the right approach to telling a story.

D: Did you turn to reenactment out of that curiosity, or was it guided more by necessity?

SJ: It was more the latter. I've never felt a need to juice up films with reenactments, but it became clear fairly early on that this one would need it. Joan is a wonderful storyteller—I could sit and listen to her all day long—but the stories she was telling were so specific and personal. So were the interviews that were done with Ted years ago, before he died. I could have used a very formal approach of just interviews, but I felt that we'd need reenactment to really bring it to life for younger viewers, particularly younger viewers. You're looking at a 91-year-old woman, and when Ted was interviewed, he was in his 70s, and they're talking about when they were teenagers or in their early 20s. I thought it would be great to show their lives and who they were as young people. And I knew there would be no way to fake it with archival footage.

D: Joan is very candid, which makes it stand out all more early on when she's talking about her simultaneous romantic relationships with Hall and his friend Saville Sax, and says she won't go into details. Were there other moments like that? How do you decide where the line is on a subject's disclosures?

SJ: There's never a simple answer to that question. She said, "Some things are too private." And I'm like, "Totally." But I knew I would probably want to use that part of it so that you understand what she's not willing to share. The viewer and filmmaker don't have the right to know everything about anybody. You don't know everything about everybody in your life; why would you have that right with people in a film you're watching? I think I push when I feel like it's something that is vitally important to the story, and I don't understand why there's any reluctance, and I think I can convince them it's okay to speak about it. But ultimately, the subject decides, and I try to respect that. 

When I did The Interrupters, we learned many things about the three main people we followed that we would never dream of putting in the film because it could have legally put them in jeopardy, and the viewer didn't need to know it. You just needed to know the kinds of lives they lived; you didn't need to know all of what they did. It's a cliché, but I really think of filmmaking as something you do with your subject rather than something you do about them. The more they feel like it's a collaborative undertaking, the more trust they have and the more open they are to share.

D: How long were you conscious that this film would be released so close to Oppenheimer? Does the thematic overlap interest you?

SJ: Early on, I even said nobody's doing anything about nuclear war anymore. Everyone is so worried that we're going to bring the world to an end through climate change that nuclear bombs are kind of on the back burner, but they're still there and still a danger. And then, when Oppenheimer was announced in September 2021, my first thought was that I was sure we'd be done first because we're a little documentary and Christopher Nolan's making this huge feature. Well, he works fast, that guy.

But I think it ended up being a blessing for us. Magnolia, our distributor, decided it would be in our interest for our film to come out on its heels. Hopefully, people who go to see Oppenheimer will want to learn more. And it certainly gives you a lot of different things to think about than Oppenheimer. I knew beforehand that Ted Hall isn't featured in it; a different atomic spy, Klaus Fuchs, shows up minimally. One thing that struck me was that, as presented in this film, Oppenheimer comes off as far more naive than Ted about what they were doing. And that's kind of wild because Oppenheimer was in his 40s, and Ted was 18, 19. Ted looked at what they were doing and saw the potential for world destabilization and destruction before the bomb had ever even been tested. 

Dan Schindel is a freelance critic and full-time copy editor living in Brooklyn. He has previously worked as the associate editor for documentary at Hyperallergic.