Interview'It's not just an espionage story, it's a love story'

The spy who loved her: How wife shielded US nuclear scientist after intel leak to USSR

New documentary ‘A Compassionate Spy’ reveals the crisis of conscience that led Manhattan Project physicist Ted Hall to spy for the Soviets, and how his spouse Joan kept his secret

Reporter at The Times of Israel

  • Photos of Ted and Joan Hall in 'A Compassionate Spy.' (Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)
    Photos of Ted and Joan Hall in 'A Compassionate Spy.' (Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)
  • A scene from 'A Compassionate Spy.' (Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)
    A scene from 'A Compassionate Spy.' (Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)
  • A photo of Ted Hall in 'A Compassionate Spy.' (Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)
    A photo of Ted Hall in 'A Compassionate Spy.' (Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)
  • Joan Hall in 'A Compassionate Spy.' (Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)
    Joan Hall in 'A Compassionate Spy.' (Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)
  • Ted Hall in 'A Compassionate Spy.' (Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)
    Ted Hall in 'A Compassionate Spy.' (Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

It was hardly a conventional setting for a marriage proposal — the cockroach-infested floor of a Chicago apartment in the 1940s. Yet love knew no bounds for two Jewish-American atheist sweethearts named Ted and Joan.

Their romance at the University of Chicago occurred in the wake of dramatic moments in world history. In 1945, the United States had achieved unprecedented scientific supremacy with the successful Trinity test of an atomic bomb at Los Alamos. It was followed by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the end of World War II. And Ted, the man making the proposal, happened to be Theodore Hall, the youngest physicist to join the Manhattan Project.

After Joan said yes, Ted made a disclosure. While working on the bomb, he had secretly passed crucial information about it to the Soviet Union. This act of espionage would arguably impact Cold War geopolitics for decades. Yet it didn’t shake Joan from marrying Ted, keeping his secret and staying by his side up until his death in 1999. This narrative is shared in a new documentary film, “A Compassionate Spy,” directed by celebrated filmmaker Steve James.

“It would be easy to tell this as an espionage story, just focus on that,” James told The Times of Israel. “It’s dramatic, it’s political, all those qualities a good espionage story has.” Yet he saw something deeper: “At its heart, a love story about how committed she was to protecting him.”

The film conveys that story in many ways, from recreations of a young Ted, Joan and others in their circle, to interviews with family members, friends and experts. Primarily, though, it’s shared through the director’s conversations with Joan.

Poignantly, on July 10, almost a week before the film’s screening at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, Joan Hall’s obituary was published in the Guardian, written by her granddaughter Martha Moss.

A scene from ‘A Compassionate Spy.’ (Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

In a follow-up email to The Times of Israel, James wrote, “Joan was such an extraordinary person in so many ways — bravely devoted to Ted and his incredible act of courage. She was a brilliant and creatively gifted person in her own right who cared deeply about the world to the very end.”

Not only did she speak with the filmmaker, she provided previous interviews she had done — including a marathon, nearly three-hour session for a BBC/CNN series that also featured Ted.

The film’s rare footage of Ted includes his reflections on attending the Trinity test: “It certainly made people think, what the hell is this thing? What are we getting into?”

Steve James, dirctor of ‘A Compassionate Spy.’ (Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“A Compassionate Spy” was screened in-person at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on July 21. That date coincided with the release of “Oppenheimer,” Christopher Nolan’s star-studded biopic of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project head and Jewish American who was Ted’s boss at Los Alamos.

Whereas Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” depicts the destruction of Hiroshima through its protagonist’s imagined visions, “A Compassionate Spy” shows footage of the bodies after the actual bombing, which deeply affected viewers at the San Francisco festival, according to a spokesperson.

James has mulled over why there’s a resurgence of interest in Manhattan Project-themed films, coming up with three possible reasons. All have to do with current existential threats — climate change; the rise of new technology such as artificial intelligence; and China’s emergence as a nuclear power.

With climate change, James said, there’s “the sense America and the world finds itself on kind of a precipice right now… kind of hearkening back, in some way, thinking about times like this, when the world was at serious risk at the height of the Cold War.” AI, meanwhile, evokes “this feeling that the technology humankind creates can be a force for good — and have the potential to destroy us.”

James has won acclaim for his diverse oeuvre, with subjects ranging from basketball as a potential way out of poverty in “Hoop Dreams” to the legendary film critic Roger Ebert in “Life Itself.”

“I think I’m very much attracted to stories where there’s some significant thing afoot, which has a profound impact on the people I follow,” he said. “How they navigate and deal with it, and what becomes of them — that’s where my interest lies.”

Ted and Joan had quite a lot to navigate.

When recruited as a Harvard College student for the Manhattan Project in 1943, whiz-kid Ted was just 18, even younger than another wunderkind, Richard Feynman. Ted proved his worth through his work on the first atomic bomb against Hiroshima and on a subsequent implosion bomb used on Nagasaki. He lamented American glorification of the attacks and feared a US monopolization of the terrifying new technology. He wasn’t alone — the film cites a letter from Los Alamos scientists urging then-US president Harry Truman not to bomb Japan.

Yet Ted took a fateful further step. As the film explains, his Harvard roommate, Saville “Savy” Sax — a fellow Jewish American, with Russian immigrant roots — was an enthusiast of progressive causes. After Ted snared a pass to leave Los Alamos for a 19th birthday getaway in New York, he and Savy conceived a plan to get atomic intel to Moscow.

Ted was not the only atomic spy for the Soviets, even at Los Alamos, where Klaus Fuchs was also active in that regard. However, Ted’s espionage put him a cut above.

A photo of Ted Hall in ‘A Compassionate Spy.’ (Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“What he had to offer was quite meaningful to the Soviets,” James said. “He offered secrets having to do with what they had discovered about the fission process that controlled the ignition of the bomb, setting off a chain reaction to make an atomic explosion.”

As if Hall’s story wasn’t jaw-dropping enough, his older brother Edward “Ed” Hall wrote his own chapter in history. As brilliant an engineer as Ted was a physicist, US Air Force hero Ed was credited with developing the intercontinental ballistic missile or ICBM, which became capable of transporting the very cargo Ted feared: Nuclear warheads.

According to the film, when the FBI became suspicious of Ted, Ed alerted his brother about a surveillance attempt. James wished he could have included another way Ed saw himself as helping Ted. Earlier in life, concerned over antisemitic hiring practices, Ed changed his last name from Holtzberg to Hall and successfully persuaded his brother to do the same.

With so much material to work with, the director found himself most moved by the bond between husband and wife.

“I saw her absolute love and devotion toward Ted,” James said.

Joan Hall in ‘A Compassionate Spy.’ (Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

That included during a crise de conscience for Ted. Although he reportedly walked out on the FBI during an interrogation, he later began feeling remorseful over his espionage when two fellow Jewish Americans — Julius and Ethel Rosenberg — were accused of sending atomic secrets to the Soviets and sentenced to death.

“Ted had looked at the situation,” James said. “He saw it for what it was: The Rosenbergs were guilty. He also recognized what they had done was extremely minor compared to what he had done. I think it prompted him to feel like he should pay the ultimate price.”

Yet, the director added, “Joan was right: ‘There’s no way you can save the Rosenbergs, it will only just cause us to be imprisoned or executed.’ …There was no way his confession was going to save the Rosenbergs. No question, she was right about that.”

The couple eventually relocated to Cambridge, England, where they raised a family and where Ted went on to do pioneering work with electron microscopes. When British intelligence approached Ted about his past, he contemplated confessing again, and once more Joan talked him out of it. Ultimately, Ted was never arrested, although James said living with a secret took its toll over the years.

The audience hears from other voices, including two of the Halls’ daughters, Ruth London and Sara Hall. (Daughter Deborah tragically died while bicycling, in a motor vehicle accident.) Sax’s children also share their thoughts, including daughter Sarah Sax and son Boria Sax; the latter expresses misgivings over his father’s and Ted’s espionage.

Boria “really expresses concern they were naive sharing information with the Soviets,” James said. “In many ways, in his view, it was a mistake.”

Ted Hall in ‘A Compassionate Spy.’ (Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

Long after Ted and Savy had passed intel to the Kremlin, history caught up with them. In the 1990s, the US government declassified documents pertaining to the Venona decrypts on individuals who had spied for the Soviets. By then, the USSR had fallen and Savy was dead. Ted was still alive, but suffering from terminal cancer and Parkinson’s disease. The one-time spy was introduced to the general public in the 1997 book “Bombshell: The Secret Story of America’s Unknown Atomic Spy Conspiracy” by journalists Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel, who are among the experts interviewed for James’s documentary. Hall died two years after the book was published.

“I think the position of the film is that whatever your feelings on what Ted did, its rightness or wrongness, he did act on his conscience,” James said. “He didn’t do it because he hated America, he didn’t do it because he could profit by sharing these secrets. He did it because he really had a genuine concern over America having the bomb.”

“As he says in the film,” said the director, “it was more out of compassion than anything else.”

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