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A COMPASSIONATE SPY: 3 ½ STARS. “plenty of unexpected twists and turns.”

“A Compassionate Spy,” a new documentary from director Steve “Hoop Dreams” James, should work as a compelling companion piece for audiences in an Atomic Age state of mind after seeing “Oppenheimer.”

Like “Oppenheimer,” the documentary’s main character is a nuclear physicist. Ted Hall was an eighteen-year-old Harvard undergrad when he was brought on to help Robert Oppenheimer and his team create a bomb as part of the Manhattan Project in 1944.

Three years later he met, and courted Joan, a left-leaning undergrad at the University of Chicago. They connected quickly, but his marriage proposal came with a catch. He quietly told her that he didn’t share the jubilation felt by his scientist colleagues for their part in ushering in the Atomic Age. Disgusted by the destructive power of the bomb he helped build, he attempted to level the playing field between super powers by leaking secrets to the Soviet Union. He felt if both countries had nuclear access the idea of mutually assured destruction would keep either from hitting the button.

(SIDENOTE: In “Oppenheimer” the Manhattan Project spy was reported to be German theoretical physicist Klaus Fuchs.)

Joan, who appears in the film, agrees to keep Ted’s secret, and does as they raise a family under a campaign of intimidation by the FBI, in a marriage that lasts more than 50 years. Using Joan’s words coupled with (sometimes overtly) dramatic recreations, archival footage and a tell-all, never-before-seen video, taped before Ted’s 1999 death, “A Compassionate Spy” details their life together and the lengths they went through to keep their secret.

Set to a soundtrack of Ted and Joan’s favorite music—Mahler, Mozart and Schumann—“A Compassionate Spy” is part family drama, part historical drama and part hagiography of a controversial and complex person. Like any good espionage story there are plenty of unexpected twists and turns, mostly told in first hand by people who were there. It’s the personal touch that elevates the story from historical and geopolitical tell-all to a different, and in many ways, more compelling story of intergenerational secrecy.

The political underpinnings of Hall’s actions are observed and commented on by historian Daniel Axelrod and physicist Michio Kaku, but the title gives away the filmmaker’s point of view. “A Compassionate Spy” is a forgiving look at Hall, painting him as a man who acted against zealous nationalism, not against his country.

“A Compassionate Spy” is a very compelling story knocked down a notch or two by an overuse of dramatizations. They don’t add much to the overall presentation, and often reduce the power of the interviews. Nonetheless, the story of one man who changed the world, for better and for worse, and why, is one worth telling.

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