Telluride Film Festival 2022: Retrograde, a compassionate spy | Parties and awards
Elsewhere, the fascinating “A Compassionate Spy” from legendary “Life Itself” director Steve James offers a different take on wartime America, charting the true narrative of a thrilling WWII spy story that this reviewer knew little about. The infiltrator in question is Ted Hall, a physicist who was recruited to work on the top-secret Manhattan Project at the age of 16, when he was still a prodigious junior at Harvard. The group’s infamous task was to build the world’s first nuclear bomb, before the Germans developed their own. Despite his young age however, Ted knew that such a powerful possession in the hands of the United States would be catastrophic. In fact, it might lead to a post-World War II United States spiraling toward fascism. A socialist and Soviet sympathizer unaware of Stalin’s horrors, Hall attempted to strike up a conversation about his concerns among the project’s top scientists, who collectively wrote a letter of opposition to President Truman, a letter he never received. . In turn, Hall then passed on some top secret material from his work to the Soviets, the same kind of information that would send Julius and Ethen Rosenberg to the electric chair in 1953. But Hall in turn was never prosecuted.
Through never-before-seen archival footage (including of Hall, filmed in the 90s, shortly before his death), interviews with Hall’s widow and daughters, and various authors and journalists in relevant fields, James constructs a compelling tale of real-life espionage and investigates with a keen eye why Hall was never arrested for his crime. The heart and soul of her story is a love affair growing up on the University of Chicago campus in the post-war 1940s. At the time, Ted was a doctoral student; his future wife Joan, an undergraduate student with sympathetic views on music and politics. For a while, it was a love triangle between Joan, Ted and his best friend Saville “Savy” Sax, a romantic period that James approaches with a Godardian bohemian sensibility. But it was Joan and Ted who were destined to be together in the end. Before popping the question, Ted insisted on sharing his spy secret with his future wife, in case it was a deciding factor for the young woman. But the couple got married and kept their secret throughout a five-decade marriage.
Unfortunately, James goes down the re-enactment route of retracing the life and times of Savy and the Halls, hiring dramatic actors to portray these real-life characters. In their quieter moments, when the focus is on romance – from lounging on the floor of a campus bedroom to listening to their favorite Mozart sonata – re-enactments more or less work, giving audiences a small taste of what these youngsters were like as they hid a potentially fatal secret from a government hostile to their species. But when James works in lines of dialogue, the effect is sadly amateurish, with actors unable to sell the drama and tension in their equally clunky costumes. The most regrettable re-enactment occurs when the Halls, harboring their own secrets, pass Sing Sing Prison where the Rosenbergs were to be executed that day. You can’t ignore the visual and tonal elegance of this scene.