The Pigeon Tunnel (2023)

‘Pigeon Tunnel’ delves into enigmatic le Carré

    An interview or an interrogation? Is there a difference? That is the intrigue sucking you into “The Pigeon Tunnel” like a vacuum cleaner. At times, you wonder who is playing whom as Cambridge-based documentarian Errol Morris shrewdly seeks the “truth” from a man who admittedly built his entire life on deception and betrayal, one David Cornwell. Or, as most know him, John le Carré, the spy novelist who proudly portrayed himself as the anti-Ian Fleming.

    Morris, an Oscar-winner for his masterpiece, “The Thin Blue Line,” normally doesn’t miss a beat, but I wished he had delved deeper into the fascinating similarities and contestations between the firsthand masters of tradecraft, both of whom turned their experiences in Britain’s secret services into captivating fiction. In fact, Fleming’s name is never uttered. But his James Bond does garner a condescending commendation from Cornwell, who fittingly labels 007 as the spy we all want to be, whereas le Carré’s creations were the emissaries we pray never to become.

    I’m quibbling, I know, but it was a prospect that made me momentarily curious. For most of the film’s too-short 94 minutes, I was closely leaning in to absorb the musings and reminiscences of an author who was jaded from the moment he left the womb of a mother who would abandon him five years hence. In contrast, she was Mother Teresa compared to his scoundrel of a father, Ronnie, a middling con man who in the words of W.C. Fields never gave a sucker an even break. Most would consider such a deprived childhood reason enough for self-pity. Not Cornwell. For him, it was duplicitous warfare in which he “joined” without remorse. It made him the craftsman he aspired to be, basking in the thrill of danger and betrayal, always on the run, never taking the time to cultivate meaningful relationships. As he tells Morris, he fit the qualifications of Her Majesty’s Secret Service to a tee.

   “A bit bad … loyal … separated early from the nest, boarding school, early independence of spirit, but looking for an institutional embrace,” he says, adding that his life has been “a succession of embraces and escapes.”

    He delivers this so matter-of-factly and with such iciness, that it furnishes all the knowledge you need to understand his inspiration for classic novels, such as “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” and “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” No doubt, the success of those works is rooted in his having witnessed similar events firsthand, mingling reality with the fantasy he summoned to mask his many heartbreaks.

    For him, there’s no harm in succumbing to illusion in lieu of the truth. He rightly asks, what is “truth” anyway? He tells Morris he’s seen very little use of it in his life, whether it be mentoring from a con man daddy or propaganda churned out by governments eager to justify the Cold War. He was particularly leery of the ease with which proclamations of anti-Nazism suddenly switched to anti-communism.

   “Both sides were inventing the enemy they needed,” he tells Morris, adding that his disenchantment with the phony rhetoric drove him to question “what had we really fought for (in World War II)?”

     It’s why he swapped Mi6 for a typewriter. He says he needed to expose his “truth.” And millions and millions of readers ate it up. So did Hollywood, which transformed his narratives into star-studded movies starring the likes of Richard Burton, Alec Guinness and Sean Connery, James Bond himself. See, yet another Fleming-le Carré parallel! A bond, if you will.

    Whether you’re a fan or not, Cornwell’s reflections spoken just outside death’s door  (he passed in 2020) yield riveting admissions that appear genuine. After all, what reason would he have for not coming clean about a life brimming with indignities, slights he funneled into a fortune by pouring his personal life into his books.  This is why so much of “The Pigeon Tunnel” emits the air of a deathbed confession.

    In the course of the conversation, enhanced by appealing graphics and stylish re-enactments, three events stand out: Cromwell’s abandonment by his mother, as he says, to save herself from his philandering father; the arrest of Kim Philby, a high-level British spy embarrassingly exposed to be in cahoots with the Soviets; and the erection of the Berlin Wall while he was stationed in Germany.

      For Morris, a brilliant and tactful inquisitor, the defining moment of Cornwell’s life lurks in his film’s title. And the emergence of this theme throughout the author’s life borders on eerie. Its origin, Cornwell explains dates to his mid-teens, when his dad whisked him off to Monte Carlo for a gambling exposition. While there, an afternoon was spent with “a well-lunched” group of men clutching rifles on a small expanse of grass behind a casino. The sport, as they referred to it, was to unleash pigeons through a long, dark tunnel emerging over the Mediterranean, where the birds were promptly felled by the “hunters.” Rather than choosing freedom, the winged creatures that survived obediently returned to their cages atop the casino destined to repeat the deadly cycle.

    It’s oddly fascinating that every le Carré novel was conceived under the working title of “The Pigeon Tunnel.” As Cornwell quips, it’s up to you to determine the metaphor. It’s certainly an effective one, both in terms of Cornwell’s willingness to repeatedly revisit his demons and for fans who somehow found comfort and enjoyment in his stories of losers and martyrs outsmarting themselves. Or, as Cornwell puts it, “The insanity of the human struggle.” Quite the opposite of James Bond. For 007, there was always a happy ending, an outcome virtually non-existent in Cornwell’s fictional world. His spooks, like us, are a scruffy bunch stumbling through life futilely seeking atonement. And like those pea-brained pigeons, the ones who survive each tribulation unwittingly come back for more.   

Movie review

The Pigeon Tunnel

Rated: PG-13 for brief language, some violence, smoking

Cast: Author David Cornwell, aka John le Carre

Director: Errol Morris

Writer: Errol Morris

Runtime: 94 minutes

Where to see: On Apple TV+

Grade: B+

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