Steve James on A Compassionate Spy


Over the course of his storied career, filmmaker Steve James has delved into the many ways in which individuals—frequently residents of his native Chicago—are subject to the whims of history, society, and life itself. Whether detailing the struggles of young athletes in his watershed 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams, the heroic efforts of anti-violence activists in 2011’s The Interrupters, or the daily experience of high schoolers in his 2018 series America to Me, James has combined sharp social analysis with striking warmth and sympathy for his subjects.

His latest documentary, A Compassionate Spy, might seem on the surface to be a departure. The film tells the story of Ted Hall, a physics prodigy who, at age 18, was invited to join the Manhattan Project. Perceptive beyond his years, Hall found himself haunted by the implications of his work and, in 1944, made the decision to share nuclear secrets with the Soviet Union. As compelling as this tale of espionage is, James’s film becomes, in the director’s words, “a love story,” with Ted’s widow Joan taking center stage as she recounts their life together, sharing the burden of her husband’s secret.

For today’s episode, Film Comment editor Clinton Krute called up the director to discuss the impetus behind A Compassionate Spy, the film’s surprising use of recreations, and how Ted Hall’s fascinating story might complement—or offer a counter to—the themes of a certain summer blockbuster about atomic weapons. (Hint: it’s not Barbie.)

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