Near the beginning of Errol Morris’s new documentary, The Pigeon Tunnel, author David Cornwell — more widely known by his pen name, John le Carré — explains the title. It comes from his 2016 memoir on which the film is based: As a youth, he watched his conman father and well-heeled country club members shoot at pigeons that had been raised from birth for the sole purpose of being hustled through narrow cliff tunnels to fly out in front of those guns, only to return to traps on the club’s roof so they could later be sent back out. Through Morris and Cornwell’s extended conversation, the pigeons become a flexible metaphor, at times compared to East Berliners trying to cross the Iron Curtain, spies trapped in cycles of delusion, and Cornwell’s sense that his early life may have inevitably set him on the path he took, first into intelligence services and later into writing.
In his books, such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and A Most Wanted Man, Cornwell offered a portrait of espionage that drastically differed from the debonair and glamorous 007-influenced spy fiction popular during the early years of the Cold War. His characters are shabbily dressed, plain-looking or inelegant, mired in drudge work, haunted by paranoia, and more preoccupied with their personal vendettas than saving the world from supervillains. Cornwell’s vision was informed by his own experiences working for British intelligence services MI5 and MI6 in the 1950s and ’60s, during which time he was radically disabused of his notions of cool and fulfilling service to Queen and Country. In many of his anecdotes, such as the high-profile defection of infamous Soviet double agent Kim Philby, he reiterates his belief that spying as a profession attracts people prone to self-mythologizing and then facilitates their elaborate private performances.
Morris has set many of his works along the shadowy border between fiction and fact. Indeed, that border is alluded to in the title of his most influential work, 1988’s The Thin Blue Line, which revolutionized the use of reenactment in documentary cinema in its exploration of conflicting accounts around a man falsely convicted of murder. Over the course of his career, Morris has profiled subjects as varied as former US Secretaries of Defense Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld, portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman, and Timothy Leary’s lover Joanna Harcourt-Smith. Morris’s artistic tendencies recur here: rapid cutting between different shots of the interviewee during a single monologue, copious reenacted footage that does not represent the past as much as the way Cornwell retells it, an omnipresent and urgent Philip Glass score. If spies are fabulists with big budgets (contrasted with the do-it-yourself ethos of Cornwell’s serial swindler father, who is by far the film’s most touched-on subject), Morris may be corroborating such a fantasy rather than merely listening to one.
Cornwell insists that all his recollections are fiction, in that people cannot help but narrativize their lives when trying to make sense of them. Morris is open about his concern that he’ll get lost in the weeds, telling his interviewee that he wonders whether he could “get to the bottom” of “all this spy stuff.” It wouldn’t be his first equivocation; for all his emphasis on the truth, Morris was one of many taken in by the lies of big-time biotech flimflammer Elizabeth Holmes, whose con dwarfs any by Cornwell’s father. Cornwell is so composed and effortlessly articulate that it’s tough to tell where he might falter, but cracks can be seen in Morris’s approach. The film includes only one tale of Cornwell’s actual work as a spy, which is curious for a documentary, since he’s openly written about specific experiences in that trade before. The Pigeon Tunnel can come across instead as a game between Morris and Cornwell (albeit a low-stakes one, since the two are friends), with the filmmaker attempting to suss out what makes the author tick. If so, then Morris seems overmatched. While Cornwell sometimes appears vulnerable, there is never a moment when he doesn’t feel like the one in control.
The Pigeon Tunnel screens as part of the New York Film Festival on October 3, 5, and 7, along with a Q&A with Errol Morris on October 3. It will be available to stream on Apple TV+ starting October 20.