Do enough profiles or conduct enough interviews, and you develop a sixth sense that tingles when your subject utters words you know would make a good lede. Sometimes in that moment it’s hard to resist a tiny fist-pump.
Errol Morris’ new documentary The Pigeon Tunnel begins with such a moment. David Cornwell, known to the world at large as John le Carré, pauses and asks Morris about the role that the filmmaker hopes to play in their conversation.
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“You need to know something about the ambitions of the people you’re talking to,” Cornwell observes.
Morris, of course, is a director so invested in the interaction between interviewer and subject that he developed a piece of technology dubbed the Interrotron to facilitate conversations more freely. It’s hard to imagine there’s anything he enjoys more than epistemological chatter of this sort — with the possible exception of finding himself sitting eye-to-eye with a protagonist who speaks candidly of his own time as an interrogator in the intelligence services.
Cornwell is, in all ways, the perfect Errol Morris interview subject. He’s self-aware to a dazzling degree, the son of a con artist who made storytelling into his own con of sorts, weaving elements of his autobiography into his fiction and, when he has engaged in memoir-writing, picking and choosing when he prefers self-mythologizing. Morris has made a career out of finding truth in the apocryphal, in cutting through layers of delusion and mendacity or at least bringing the artificiality of those layers to the surface.
Or maybe Cornwell is actually too perfect an Errol Morris interview subject? For me, the director’s best films thrive on a certain level of friction, a relationship in which interviewer and subject are predator and prey, however amiable. Cornwell died in 2020 and it’s a treasure to have this last opportunity to glimpse into the mind of a master raconteur, to hear his erudite explanations for his thematic fascinations and to watch him tiptoe around which personal tales he’s comfortable rehashing and which are better left in forms previously written.
The answer to Cornwell’s question, though, about the role that Morris is set to play in the documentary is something close to “enthusiastic admirer.” In a way I don’t think has ever been quite so evident in one of his films previously, Morris comes to Cornwell as a fan, perhaps even an eager-to-impress acolyte. For his part, Cornwell clearly sat down knowing Morris’ work, in addition to his own evident experience with Morris’ trade.
That makes The Pigeon Tunnel charming and engaging and entirely lacking in friction, even in the places you might sense that there’s more to be drawn out of Cornwell with some cajoling or pressure. Despite elements of his past that suggest otherwise, Cornwell comes across here exclusively as genteel and polished and The Pigeon Tunnel is a genteel and polished documentary, one that probably wouldn’t have left the late author feeling overly exposed. The multiple Cornwell children credited as producers surely agree.
Honestly, it’s hard to know watching The Pigeon Tunnel what Cornwell might have been wary of. The documentary’s title comes from the title of Cornwell’s memoir. Both the meaning of the title and his general autobiography are tales Cornwell has often presented about himself — from his upbringing with an absent mother and criminal father, to his insecurities being educated in posh environments where he never seemed to fit in, to the duality of identity that he developed and that served him well first in British intelligence and then as an author of iconic thrillers like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
The conversations here are focused more around Cornwell’s parents and his fascinations with traitors like Kim Philby, with some limited book-by-book analysis that seems mostly reflective of Morris’ personal preferences. When Morris senses that Cornwell is sticking a hair too much to his autobiographical script, the director nudges, but without an evident agenda. More frequently, he delves into interpretations that Cornwell either rejects through subtle and friendly refinements or simply agrees with, with the smile of a man who’s happy to be seen and understood, but not eager to dig more deeply.
If there are suggestions that Morris is making about Cornwell’s fabulism or his manipulations of the narrative, no conclusive motivation emerges. Nor is it evident why the one subject around which Cornwell sets up a barrier is his love life. Nothing about Cornwell’s political leanings, which became increasingly outspoken later in his life, is addressed in the slightest, though his disillusionment with British intelligence and the Cold War is gently acknowledged.
Generally, Morris treats Cornwell and his story not as an interrogation but as a yarn, one to be unfurled with re-enactments in the style of a John le Carré thriller — Steve James’ recent A Compassionate Spy employed a similar tactic — immaculately lensed by Igor Martinović. Morris leans hard into certain visual conceits — the re-enactment actors are constantly shot against claustrophobic hallways, while the library in which Cornwell is filmed often looks to be fragmenting behind him.
Tying everything together is a gripping score by Philip Glass, with Paul Leonard-Morgan, a breathlessly atonal composition that simultaneously is unsettling and puts fans instantly at home in an Errol Morris film.
The Pigeon Tunnel will find its biggest audience streaming on Apple TV+, where it can be watched in tandem with the post-le-Carré espionage pastiche of Slow Horses.
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