In 2016, John le Carré published a memoir called “The Pigeon Tunnel,” which the late spy novelist — who died in late 2020 — claims had been the working title of nearly all his books at some point. For le Carré, the term describes the passage through which naive birds of sport were forced from their nests, only to emerge as targets for marksmen waiting with rifles poised at a hotel in Monte Carlo. That’s just one of several metaphors Le Carré uses to communicate his cynical worldview in a playful portrait from Errol Morris, whose career-long interest in truth and delusion fits his subject so well, the whole film ultimately feels like a bit of a ploy.
For starters, there was no such person as John le Carré, a pseudonym adopted by David Cornwell, an Oxford-educated ex-spy who turned to literature to process the absurdity of England’s so-called “intelligence” industry, which Cornwell slyly dubbed “the Circus.” Where Ian Fleming had made espionage out to be glamorous and sexy, Cornwell brought it down to a more bureaucratic realm, where loyalty and trust were the operative elements, in novels such as “The Russia House” and “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.”
Who were the agents serving, and what motivated them? In speculating about Kim Philby, the defector on whom he modeled turncoat character Bill Haydon in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” Cornwell describes the “voluptuous” joy of “self-imposed schizophrenia,” whereby spies thrive on the juggling of multiple identities and the perverse risk of being found out. Cornwell knows a thing or two about that. As the author freely admits to Morris on camera, he too was an ideal candidate to be recruited to the secret service: a boarding school boy, separated early from his parents, independent minded, bust still seeking a certain “institutional embrace.”
Morris presents “The Pigeon Tunnel” less as a standard interview than a friendly interrogation, which serves as a bit of performance art intended to amplify the sense of healthy distrust any audience should bring to the documentary form. (The focus needn’t be an ex-spy to invite a certain degree of skepticism from viewer.) Cornwell disarms us from the outset by feeling out the director: Is Morris “my friend across the fire,” he muses, or someone more sinister? Cornwell insists that he will answer all Morris’ questions candidly, and yet, there’s something in his smile that suggests not sincerity so much as a kid who’s gotten away with something.
That makes “The Pigeon Tunnel” a uniquely delicious documentary to watch, akin to doing a jigsaw puzzle — a sentiment Morris encourages by surrounding Cornwell (who sits in an elegant old-fashioned library) with tall diagonal mirrors, and shooting him from a number of unconventional angles. Whereas the director’s typical head-on approach, in which subjects stare directly into the lens of his trademark “Interrotron,” allows audiences to play lie detector as they scrutinize each and every microexpression in closeup — a useful tool when his subject is Robert McNamara or Donaly Rumseld — here Morris intends to sow doubt.
It’s all part of the game, making “The Pigeon Tunnel” a new kind of spy movie: one built around a debriefing. Could Cornwell be Keyser Söze? To which I say: So what if he were lying? That’s the only trouble with this particular approach, which is essentially a high-concept adaptation of le Carré’s memoir, in which Morris supplements his interview with Cornwell by lifting passages from the audiobook. He illustrates the author’s words with the sort of dreamy surrealistic re-creations that have become his signature (à la falling milkshake from “The Thing Blue Line,” or the body that plummets in slow-motion in “Wormwood”). Here he get a room carpeted with hundreds of eggs and stylized shots of teenage David at the horse track, where his father Ronnie — a compulsive gambler and something of a confidence man — had sent him to place a bet.
Whereas Cornwell’s mother took her white suitcase and walked out on the family when David was still quite young, Ronnie is by far the most interesting character in his childhood. His dad declares a spectacular bankruptcy at one point, and even does a stretch in jail. At this point, Morris demonstrates that Cornwell’s memory has embellished the truth. The author remembers his father waving to him from the prison window, which was impossible. Still, these anecdotes suggest the clear lack of a moral role model for the boy — and by extension, his need to create a character like George Smiley, who represented all the values of an ideal father figure.
Le Carré’s novels were frequently adapted to the screen, and Morris treats these clips like B-roll from the real world, as if they represent scenes from Cornwell’s own life (favoring the 1980’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” miniseries, starring Alec Guiness as Smiley, to the 2011 feature for which Gary Oldman was Oscar nominated). Other material, including archival photos and press clippings, have been spliced together at sharp angles, like pieces of a shattered mirror.
Morris moves on from the “pigeon tunnel” metaphor early on, citing a passage from “The Secret Pilgrim,” in which Cornwell writes, “You want the rolled-up parchment in the inmost room that tells you who runs your lives and why.” The trouble, as in a separate story about a locked safe with the nation’s top secrets, is that time spent working for the Circus eventually reveals a terrible truth: “that the inmost room is bare.”
This same disappointment eventually awaits any who play Morris’ guessing game about le Carré. Cornwell is a compelling and affable fellow, well educated and eloquent, who speaks openly of everything but his love life. And yet, there’s a feeling of anticlimax to “The Pigeon Tunnel,” which fits comfortably within Morris’ oeuvre, without exposing anything more of Cornwell than he’d previously shared with readers.