No one knew spies like David John Moore Cornwell, aka John le Carré, the celebrated writer whose stories of Cold War espionage were shot through with authenticity and dripping with despair. The spy who came in from the cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Smileys people, The night manager, And A perfect spy cemented his reputation as a preeminent artist in the genre, acting as a one-man corrective to Ian Fleming (and his popular James Bond fantasies) by immersing readers in secret worlds where the shadows were so thick that I could almost choke on it. He was the master of duplicity, and in Errol Morris’ The pigeon tunnel– inspired by the last on-camera interview with the author, who died in 2020 at the age of 89 – he explores and lays bare his life and career, tracing the oh-so-thin line between fiction and reality, truth and lies as well Confession and cross-examination.
Le Carré was born in 1931 to a mother who abandoned him when he was five and a father, Ronald “Ronnie” Cornwell, whom his son describes as a “con artist” who never had a dime and loved the thrill of fraud. As he explains in The pigeon tunnel (currently showing at the New York Film Festival and premiering in theaters and on Apple TV+ on October 20th), he spent an exciting and romantic youth as a member of his father’s con squad, and this continued when he was sent to prison He went to boarding school, where he did his best to fit in but still felt like an outsider. Whether he was participating in Ronnie’s schemes (which kept them financially afloat) or hanging out with high-powered preppies, le Carré was working undercover, literally and/or figuratively, and the distinctiveness of his upbringing – his mother abandoned; grew up in the British elite education system; and a good boy who was also bad – made him a top candidate for the country’s secret service, which soon recruited him.
The pigeon tunnel begins with le Carré noting that every interview is a “performance art” interrogation in which the interrogator is also in the crosshairs, and that during his time in the army his own interrogations were about “developing a dependence on the to produce interrogators.” Although this suggests that a double investigation is at hand, Morris is (traditionally) heard questioning his subject throughout the course of the film, but is not explored further. Instead, the focus is entirely on le Carré. After two rather adventurous stints as an enigmatic agent for Her Majesty, he decided to fill the gaps in his service with fake stories about the job. Debut in 1963, The spy who came in from the cold It couldn’t have come at a better time, defining and encapsulating the desolate (if not downright fatalistic) mood of the geopolitical era and making Le Carré an instant sensation – a status it would maintain for decades thanks to subsequent bestsellers would be about cat and mouse spy games.
Morris shoots Le Carré from oblique angles and in mirror-filled mansion rooms, using split screens that juxtapose the author with excerpts from film adaptations of his works, as well as dramatic recreations that reflect the unreality of Le Carré’s plays. The novelist repeatedly discusses the connections between his experiences and the threads he has spun, the clearest of which can be found in the 1986 semi-autobiography A perfect spy, and Morris plays with this duality (“the imprint of personality”) while le Carré explains it and the ways in which it is fundamental to espionage. The Secret Service agent’s “self-imposed schizophrenia” is very familiar to him, as is the allure it exerts – a theme that emerges from an extensive conversation about Kim Philby, the notorious British spy who defected after her trip to the Soviet Union even as a double agent.
The pigeon tunnel takes its title from le Carré’s 2016 memoir and has been the working name for most of his books, and tunnels and cages – and the sacrifices, suffering and loneliness they produce – are recurring elements of Morris’s documentary. Yet despite its many flourishes (including newspaper headlines and rare archival video clips), the documentary remains fixated on le Carré, who speaks with the eloquence one might expect (when he describes the allure of espionage as “voluptuous”) and who argues persuasively that he is now too old, happy and comfortable in his own skin to continue to deceive the public (and himself). A great chronicler of his own biography, he is expertly advanced by Morris, whose questions challenge present and past statements and encourage further elaboration and consideration.
It turns out to be a betrayal The pigeon tunnelis the running theme of “Le Carré,” whose roots go back to Le Carré’s relationship with Ronnie, a great and popular charlatan who cared nothing for the truth and pursued the ecstasy of perpetrating a well-planned fraud. Le Carré’s feelings toward his father are, of course, complicated, especially given that Ronnie eventually tried to make a name for him, and the author discusses this issue with cool analytical acumen. His approach to himself is no different from his approach to writing, which he describes as an “attempt at self-knowledge” and which the film cleverly portrays as a similar act of deception – an act in which people create alternative figures for themselves and others create, play tricks on their targets, and link the real and the unreal in ways that are difficult to analyze.
Le Carré and Morris are the only voices heard The pigeon tunnel, and that fits with a saga about honest and devious (self-) inventions. From discussing his own betrayal and regrets to his opinions on the nobility and sad emptiness of the espionage profession, le Carré comes across as the great storyteller readers have long known him to be, and Morris’ documentary gives him space to do his to tell his own story At the same time, it pushed him to untangle the intricacies of his life and the world in which he lived and which he brought to life with his classics. He may have believed that “history is chaos” and that when it comes to searching for answers, “the innermost space is empty,” but at his best he illuminated and frightened the darkness and those who live in it to something enlightening as it crushes. As Morris correctly describes him and what his film confirms, he was “the exquisite poet of self-hatred.”
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