Two-time Oscar nominee Steve James is very good at establishing the context of World War II and its immediate aftermath, the start of the so-called Cold War, the propaganda of the Red Scare, and the wild fluctuations of the American Left. He uses archival footage (note the chilling “blooper” when President Truman starts laughing in the middle of announcing America dropped the bomb on Hiroshima) and propagandistic songs like “Atomic Power,” paranoia engulfing the “free world” after the war ended.
The true nature of the Soviet system, and Stalin’s monstrosities, were clear for many to see, despite the “useful idiots” parroting Soviet propaganda, sometimes in the pages of the New York Times (see: Pulitzer-Prize winner Walter Duranty). The cynical Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939, in which Russia and Germany secretly decided to carve up Poland, sent shock waves. When Hitler invaded Russia in 1941, the pact was rendered null and void, but many onlookers never recovered from the betrayal. The Halls, however, felt betrayed much later when the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia to quash the “Prague Spring.” It’s important to underline that many people saw the truth 30 years earlier (see: George Orwell, who also saw the world through “pinkish” glasses but was clear-sighted enough to get the memo about what was happening in 1936-38 during his experiences in the Spanish Civil War.).
James uses re-enactments to show us Ted and Joan’s life. While they are gently and respectfully done, they’re unnecessary, particularly when you have as strong a storyteller as Joan Hall, who paints vivid pictures with her words. The re-enactments don’t serve the same purpose as the re-enactments in, say, Errol Morris’ “The Thin Blue Line,” where they underline the unreliability of witness testimony. Here, they are interruptions, not illuminations.
“A Compassionate Spy” is strongest in digging into the archives to give audiences who might not know this cultural history a real feel for what was happening. The Cold War didn’t just happen. It was built by Wall Street and industrialists (something which Ted Hall predicted during his time at Los Alamos). The very recent past where America was pro-Russia was unthinkable in the 70 years that followed. James shows fascinating clips from Michael Curtiz’s 1943 film “Mission to Moscow,” starring Walter Huston and Ann Harding, featuring a flattering portrait of Soviet society as well as a damn near cuddly Stalin. (If you’re interested in a deeper dive into Hollywood’s interpretation of Russia in the late ’30s and early ’40s, pre-Cold War, you should definitely check out Farran Smith Nehme’s in-depth essay Shadows of Russia: A history of the Soviet Union, as Hollywood saw it.)