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Steve James on his new film about a Manhattan Project scientist who was spying for the Soviets

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There's a love story at the center of the new documentary, "A Compassionate Spy." Joan and Ted Hall, a couple who meet as University of Chicago students right after the Second World War - they share a love of poetry, Mozart, leftist politics and, soon, a secret. Ted tells Joan of something extraordinary, illegal and possibly treasonous. When he was the youngest scientist on the atomic bomb project, Ted Hall gave secrets to the Soviet Union.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "A COMPASSIONATE SPY")

TED HALL: I was quite concerned with the question of what the world would be like when the Second World War was finished.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You didn't think, if I do this, I'm breaking the law, and they might execute me?

HALL: No.

SIMON: Ted Hall died in 1999. The film uses a clip from an interview with CNN in 1998. "A Compassionate Spy" is directed by Steve James, who's made previously praised films that include "Hoop Dreams" and "Life Itself." Steve James joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us, Steve.

STEVE JAMES: Great to be here, Scott.

SIMON: Joan Hall died just a little over a month ago at the age of 94. She opened their lives to you, didn't she?

JAMES: Oh, my God, yes. She certainly did. You know, this is a story that she's lived with for many, many years. And I think she saw this as an opportunity to really tell Ted's story the way they would want to have his story told, the both of them.

SIMON: What did a 19-year-old student, Ted Hall, even one working at Los Alamos, have to give Soviet spies anyway?

JAMES: Ted's primary contribution to the spying was after he had performed well in his very junior physicist capacity, he was promoted to work on the process by which the bomb really detonates and explodes, a very important part of the whole thing. And he was able to pass information about the implosion process. And then when the Soviets got that from Ted, they also got similar information about implosion from Klaus Fuchs. And that's when they knew that they really had genuine intelligence about the bomb.

SIMON: Yeah, two sources, the old rule. There were guards all around Los Alamos. How did Ted Hall get the information out?

JAMES: Well, he and Savy, his friend and fellow spy in this regard, they worked up this way of conveying the information where they would take Walt Whitman's "Leaves Of Grass" and use it to create their own sort of code language. They weren't professional spies. They didn't know anything about any of this, and so they probably were going off of movies. And of course, their handler learns that they met in the middle of the street in Albuquerque, where Ted was going to pass some direct information to Savy. And they said, you can't meet in the middle of the street like that. That's ridiculous. But they got away with it. I mean, I think there was a feeling at Los Alamos that because they were in such a remote location that things were much safer there and secure than they, in fact, were.

SIMON: And why did Ted Hall slip atomic secrets to the USSR?

JAMES: Well, you know, Ted wanted to work on this project, like virtually all the scientists who were at Los Alamos, and in part because - or a major part because there was this feeling that Germany was working on developing the bomb and that no one wanted Germany to have this bomb first. Ted, being a Jew, also had, you know, deeply personal reasons to want to work on this as well. But once he got out there and realized the scope of what they were doing and the fact I think that they were going to be successful, he started to think about, well, what's going to happen with this bomb in the postwar world? The United States is going to have this awful weapon to themselves. And he worried that the United States having this weapon to itself would be destabilizing, especially if a right-wing government came to power in the United States.

SIMON: The FBI suspected or more than suspected something had been going on. And they questioned Ted Hall and Savy Sax in Chicago after the war. And you speculate, and Ted and Joan Hall more than speculate, that Ted's brother, Ed, might have been the reason they didn't proceed with the prosecution. How did that work out?

JAMES: Yeah. I mean, this is the kind of situation that if you made the Hollywood version of this movie, no one would believe it, which is that Ed, Ted's brother, who was 11 years older than him, was a brilliant engineer in the Air Force. And he was instrumental in the development of the Air Force's rocket program, the Atlas rocket, and including leading up to the development of the ICBM missile program. He's in the Air Force Hall of Fame, you know, and there's been documentation that has emerged since we made the film, even, that has shown that they were, in fact, quite reluctant to pursue this because of the potential embarrassment of the fact that their chief rocket scientist's brother was a spy. And if they could not convict him, that embarrassment would be profound and was just not worth pursuing.

SIMON: Should explain the Halls moved to Cambridge in the United Kingdom, and there was a 1997 book, "Bombshell," by Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel, that reported their story. Let me put to you, Steve, a question that I kept asking myself and wondered if you would have addressed it to Ted Hall. If he had misgivings about helping to develop the atom bomb, why not just refuse to help develop that bomb rather than to give secrets about the bomb to a regime headed by Stalin, who ranks alongside Adolf Hitler in villainy?

JAMES: I think the answer is that the bomb was going to be developed with or without Ted Hall. I mean, Ted Hall was a junior physicist. It was well on its way to happening regardless of what Ted decided to do. And he says himself that being a part of that project was exhilarating at a certain point because, you know, it was probably in many ways the most significant scientific enterprise undertaken to that point in history. So I think for Ted to quit and not be a part of that wasn't going to change anything. The thing that he could have an impact on was his decision to try and basically even the playing field.

I mean, the question I wanted to ask Ted that no one asked in those interviews, those archival interviews that we did, is to what degree did he feel responsible for the arms race by playing some role in helping the Soviet Union get the bomb? And let's be clear, the Soviet Union was going to get the bomb regardless of any spying. I mean, they had brilliant scientists. We would have had an arms race, but I would have loved to ask Ted to what degree he felt culpability in setting off an arms race whose politics are at such odds to his own.

SIMON: Steve James' film, "A Compassionate Spy." Thank you so much for being with us.

JAMES: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.