At the beginning of “The Pigeon Tunnel,” British author and former intelligence officer David Cornwell – better known to millions of readers by his pen name, John le Carré – sits down in front of Errol Morris’ camera and immediately starts asking questions of the director. Morris is best known for coaxing damning admissions out of his subjects, most notably when former U.S. secretary of defense Robert McNamara admitted U.S. mistakes in Vietnam in “The Fog of War.”
But if the art of the interview is to get the subject to relax and disclose things they might not ordinarily do, forget it: Cornwell was once an interrogator for British intelligence and he never forgets the dance he’s involved in. “This is a performance,” he says, “and you need to know something about the ambitions of the people you’re talking to.”
But make no mistake, Cornwell brought some of his own ambitions to “The Pigeon Tunnel,” which premiered on Friday at the Telluride Film Festival. The extensive interview he did with Morris was the final one he gave before his death in 2020 at the age of 89, and part of the reason he agreed to do it is because he knew it would be serious and substantial.
The result is a wide-ranging dialogue that manages to be both philosophical and playful, a personal portrait that goes exactly as deep as Cornwell wants it to go but never feels as if the author is getting away with obfuscation, the way Morris’ 2018 Steve Bannon doc, “American Dharma,” sometimes did.
Mostly, that’s because Cornwell’s work, twisty and morally ambiguous spy thrillers like “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” and “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” is a kind of reflection of his own life – not just his days at the British intelligence services MI5 and MI6 in the 1950s and ’60s, but his childhood as the son of a father he describes as a confidence man and a trickster.
“I’ve lived through a world of endless betrayal,” says Cornwell, who was brought up by Ronnie Cornwell, who spent time in jail for insurance fraud and viewed every acquaintance as a potential mark. Cornwell’s mother, Olive, disappeared when her son was 5, later telling him that life with a con man with numerous mistresses had become intolerable.
With his father, Cornwell says, “I learned the manners and attitude of a class to which I did not belong.” He also joined in his father’s cons, which was preferable to falling victim to them. “Whatever deprivations I seem to have suffered, mothers and things, it was terribly exciting,” he says. That central phrase, “mothers and things,” could be devastating, but Cornwell tosses it off casually.
Throughout the conversations, the author wields his eloquence almost as a weapon, emphasizing some things, playing down others and allowing Morris to lead the conversation only when it suits his purposes. There’s a stark contrast between Cornwell’s stately precision and Morris’s interjections; they’re part of the reason we love Morris, but in this setting they always seem a little too loud, a little too sharp and a little too insistent, even if they sometimes jar an admission or two.
“I look at you as an exquisite poet of self-hatred,” says Morris at one point, and Cornwell replies, “Yeaaah, I’ll go with that.” But exactly why that might be true is left for us to figure out.
The film gets its title from the underground tunnels through which pigeons were forced before flying out to be shot by hunters; it’s a phrase Cornwell says was the working title of most of his books at one point, thought he didn’t actually use it until his 2016 autobiographical work of that name. Morris runs with the metaphor, illustrating the conversation with lots of slow-motion shots and shadowy closeups of the birds.
The film also uses numerous re-enactments, but for the most part they serve as brief, impressionistic glimpses into the past. Even when Morris presents still photos, he’s crafty. Often as not those photos are cropped oddly, disrupted by black bars or cut into pieces and rearranged. It’s a playful approach that creates a striking visual look without giving much information; Morris shows pages from John le Carré manuscripts with copious notes scribbled over them, but you’d have to look very quickly if you expect to learn anything about how the author edited or revised his own work.
But you will learn how he talks about his work, and about his life. The dialogue has been turned into a monologue, one that deals with big ideas but manages to stay brisk. Cornwell is measured, Morris is excitable, and the setting jumps between a library that’s all dark wood and elegant bookshelves and a bare room. Cornwell is seldom seen head on; instead, he’s shot from below, from the side or from around a corner in the next room, with a bookcase or two in the way.
Again and again, the conversation returns to Ronnie Cornwell, who helped his son learn that what people say outwardly is different from what they think inwardly. But he can’t even trust his memories of his father: Cornwell vividly recalls visiting his dad in jail at one point, but his father later said there was no way that ever happened, “and I believe him.”
But in a world of endless betrayal – which is to say, the world of John le Carré’s work and the world of David Cornwell’s life – can you believe anybody? With “The Pigeon Tunnel,” Errol Morris asks the question, Cornwell sort of answers it, and it feels satisfying whether or not we can believe it.
“The Pigeon Tunnel” will be released in theaters and on Apple TV+ on Oct. 20, 2023.