A Compassionate Spy review – love story of scientist who tried to stop nuclear war

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, due in July, is sure to fit its eponymous physicist out with dutiful misgivings on the atomic weaponry front. But this engrossing documentary by Hoop Dreams’ Steve James tells the story of someone who actually did something about it: Ted Hall, who confessed in 1998 – a year before his death – to having passed nuclear secrets to the Soviets while working on the Manhattan project. Recruited as an 18-year-old Harvard genius, he came to feel that a US monopoly on the bomb would threaten global stability and the future of humanity.

A sensitive college boy and nascent communist who chafed against wearing military uniform at Los Alamos, Hall gave priceless schematics to Uncle Joe via his beatnik friend, the excellently named Saville Sax, who was the one who actually stepped inside the Soviet consulate. James gets inside the fulminating, jingoistic wartime US ambience through dramatic recreations of college trysts and FBI shakedowns, as well as Hall’s final interviews – notably the CNN spot in which he eventually came clean. But it’s anchoring this all in testimony from Hall’s now elderly wife, Joan, that gives A Compassionate Spy a passionate payload, making it as much a love story as a political chronicle. “A nonconformist, keeping clear of everyone else’s nonconformity,” is how she sums him up. “Did I forget to say he was beautiful?”

Joan Hall emerges here as forthright and defiant – where her husband, later dubbed “the quiet American”, was self-effacing. Maybe it’s because of the 52-year period she had to keep stumm, jettisoning her own political activities as the FBI took an interest in the couple. One topic of conversation as the Los Alamos scientists were waiting for the Trinity test was apparently whether marriage would survive as an institution, but the Halls themselves seem to have upped the odds. She provided the steel to their operation, insisting that Ted hold his silence at crucial junctures, including when the CIA appeared to offer an olive branch. At times she crosses a prideful line, especially in the mental gymnastics needed to justify trading with the blatantly homicidal Russian dictator, or in her indignation over the subsequent arms race given her husband’s role in accelerating it.

As the Halls’ idealism caused them to chew over such compromises at the dinner table, James’s sleek telling excels at intertwining the personal and the political with illuminating detail. Not least the revelation that what ultimately may have deflected attention from them is that Hall’s brother, Edward, developed the intercontinental ballistic missile destined to be carrying the payloads; it may have ultimately too damaging to the US nuclear programme if the FBI’s dirt-digging covered its leading missile scientist in muck too.

One detail omitted here, though, is that Hall died of renal cancer, no doubt as a result of handling plutonium, but not before delivering some stark warnings about arms proliferation and the dangers of a potentially fascist America with its finger on the button. Both seem frighteningly close to coming to pass, though perhaps we also need to think about Hall’s ethos about sharing technological breakthroughs with respect to AI and China, too. This first-rate portrait gets intimate with an atomic-age Edward Snowden, all the better to cast a long shadow.

• A Compassionate Spy is at Bertha DocHouse from 24 March.