The Chicago International Film Festival—the 58th edition of North America’s longest-running competitive international film festival—opens tomorrow night with The Compassionate Spy, a new documentary by renowned local filmmaker Steve James at the Music Box Theatre plus a block party on Southport open to the community. It’s a classic Chicago party, foregoing the black tie and evening gown dress code.
During the festival, which runs October 12-23, films will be screened across the city at venues including AMC River East 21, the Music Box Theatre, the Gene Siskel Film Center, the Chicago History Museum, and pop-up screenings in Austin and Englewood, as well as virtual screenings on the festival’s streaming platform.
The Festival Centerpiece film on October 18 will be Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery from Rian Johnson with the return of Daniel Craig as Detective Benoit Blanc and a cast of colorful characters. The festival’s Closing Night film is White Noise, Noah Baumbach’s dramatization of a contemporary American family’s attempts to deal with the mundane conflicts of everyday life in an uncertain world. Special presentations and Chicago premieres include Stephen Frears’ The Lost King, an inspiring tale of empowerment and British history, starring Sally Hawkins and Steve Coogan; Raymond and Ray, a darkly comic portrait of two brothers, played by Ethan Hawke and Ewan McGregor; Michael Grandage’s My Policeman, starring Harry Styles; this year’s Venice Golden Lion winner, documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras’ portrait of photographer Nan Goldin, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed. Other highlights include Empire of Light from director Sam Mendes and Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin.
Awards will include a Career Achievement Award to Kathryn Hahn of the festival centerpiece Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, and an Artistic Achievement Award to Jonathan Majors, star of JD Dillard’s Devotion, an aerial war epic based on the bestselling book of the same name, screening as part of the festival’s Black Perspectives program. Anna Diop will receive the festival’s Rising Star Award for her work in Nikyatu Jusu’s Nanny, the story of a Senegalese nanny increasingly haunted by the absence of the young son she left behind.
The opening night film at 7pm tomorrow is Steve James’ A Compassionate Spy, a story of WWII espionage with profound moral implications. The film follows the remarkable story of Theodore Hall, a math and science prodigy who passed on crucial military secrets to Soviet intelligence. (See our capsule review below.)
The After Dark Opening Night feature at 9:45pm is Sick, an homage to classic slasher films directed by John Hyams and co-written by Kevin Williamson, reimagined for the pandemic era and co-presented with Music Box of Horrors.
For the first time in film festival history, opening night will begin with the ChiFilmFest Opening Night Block Party from 5 to 10pm in the Music Box neighborhood on Southport between Grace and Waveland. Neighbors, community groups, and film fans from across Chicago are invited to enjoy music, film photo opportunities, vendor booths, and grab a bite at food trucks offering a variety of choices. Entry to the Block Party is free; tickets to the opening night films are now on sale at the festival website.
If you’re a serious movie fan, consider grabbing a festival pass. The Passport includes 20 film vouchers while the Moviegoer includes 10. There’s also a documentary 4-film bundle. Similar passes are available for virtual screenings. And you can also buy a single ticket at any time you decide you need to see a movie.
So many great films. If you’re looking for some guidance on what to see, the festival’s artistic director Mimi Plauché shares some of her hidden gems and favorite suggestions in our upcoming interview. Watch for it tomorrow. And watch this space: Your Third Coast Review movie crew is reviewing films being screened at the festival. Watch for our dispatches with brief reviews over the next two weeks.
A Compassionate Spy
Of all the names you’ve heard connected with the Manhattan Project and America’s atomic bomb development, you probably have never heard this one: Theodore Hall. Hall was one of those young geniuses who started college at the age of 14 and graduated from Harvard University at 18 In 1944. He was immediately recruited to work as a physicist at Los Alamos. Hall later earned master’s and doctoral degrees in physics from the University of Chicago. Hall’s story in told in a gripping documentary by Chicago filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Life Itself).
Hall was a left-wing idealist who admired the Soviet Union (not uncommon for leftwing Americans at the time). When Hall was at Los Alamos, he decided he could benefit humanity by passing on US atomic secrets to Russia. While Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were tried and executed for treason, Hall was interrogated, wiretapped, and followed, but never arrested. James tells Hall’s story through interviews—with Hall himself before his death in 1999, and with his wife Joan and two daughters—as well as vintage footage and reenactments. He also interviews Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel, authors of the 1997 book, Bombshell: The Secret Story of America’s Unknown Atomic Spy