A Compassionate Spy

Director Steve James discusses A Compassionate Spy

October 17, 2023 A Special Projects Documentary Series Screening

An American physicist opts to share nuclear secrets in Director Steve James’s new documentary, A Compassionate Spy.

James’s film tells the amazing story of physicist Ted Hall who was recruited at 18 to be the youngest person on the Manhattan Project and goes to Los Alamos with no clue what he'll be working on. But the Harvard undergraduate didn’t share his colleagues’ elation after the successful detonation of the world’s first atomic bomb. In 1944, with Germany clearly losing the war and concerned that a U.S. monopoly on such a powerful weapon could lead to nuclear catastrophe, he decided to start passing key information about the bomb’s construction to the Soviet Union.

On October 17, after the Special Projects Committee Documentary Series screening in Los Angeles, James discussed the making of the film during a Q&A moderated by Special Projects Documentary Series Subcommittee Chair Ondi Timoner. During the conversation he revealed how he was inspired to include reenactments in the film after meeting Hall’s widow, Joan, on the advice of investigative journalist Dave Lindorff who had written a piece about Ted.

“It was kind of this remarkable story and Dave said his wife is kind of amazing. And so, we interviewed Joan. I wasn’t sure when I went, I thought at best this might be a kind of short of this woman talking about her husband and what he did. That’s what I was thinking. Then I found out that she had this footage of him in her possession. That’s when I thought, ‘I think this is more than that.’ When I got back from that shoot, having heard her tell these stories so vividly, I was just like,‘I think we need to do some kind of reenactment, recreation with this.’”

James’s other directorial credits include the feature film Prefontaine; the movies for television Joe and Max and Passing Glory; the feature length documentaries Life Itself, Head Games and Stevie, the International Documentary Association Award-winning mini-series The New Americans; the DGA Award-nominated and Emmy® Award-winning documentary The Interrupters; and the DGA Award-nominated documentaries At the Death House Door (co-directed with Peter Gilbert) and Abacus: Small Enough to Jail. His Peabody and DGA Award-winning documentary Hoop Dreams was also selected for the Library of Congress National Film Registry.

James has been a member of the DGA since 1995.


Q&A photos by Howard Wise – Print courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

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