‘The Pigeon Tunnel’ presents rich anecdotes, thoughtful observations and candid confessions11/1/2023
In “The Pigeon Tunnel,” filmmaker Errol Morris engages in a four-day conversation with celebrated spy novelist David Cornwell (better known by his pen name, John le Carré, author of “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” and “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”), revealing the fascinating exchange between two masters of their craft.
This biographical documentary delves into le Carré’s life, tracing his journey from a young British Secret Service operative to author. Even for those who have never read a le Carré novel, “The Pigeon Tunnel” is a delightful exploration of his life and ideas. The documentary deftly balances the personal revelations of le Carré with the larger exploration of truth, fiction and the art of espionage.
In “The Pigeon Tunnel,” Morris adopts a friendly interrogation approach using his own patented “Interrotron” filmmaking device. This technique allows Morris and le Carré to maintain natural eye contact during the interview, while also having le Carré look directly into the camera, allowing for a more personal and conversational experience for the subject and the audience. Morris has employed this technique with a range of controversial figures, from Robert McNamara to Steve Bannon, but his conversation with le Carré is distinct. The documentary is a captivating puzzle, encouraging viewers to scrutinize le Carré’s every expression.
The discussion revolves around the themes of deception and duplicity in le Carré’s spy novels and their connection to his life experiences, such his reportedly colorful sex life and complicated relationship with his con-man father. Le Carré may be reticent about discussing certain aspects of his life, but he openly reveals his inner wounds and existential concerns. He grapples with the idea that human beings lack a true center, referring to our “inmost room” as empty and the things we seek as mere illusions.
What adds an extra layer of intrigue to the documentary is the allure of le Carré’s voice. His diction and delivery masterfully narrate his captivating stories, which often delve into the shadowy realms of human existence. This gift for storytelling is one of the reasons why le Carré’s novels have resonated so deeply with readers across the globe and the stories have been adopted to several movies. His capacity to create a sense of atmosphere, tension and moral ambiguity is not only reflected in his literary works but also in his personal narratives.
One of the most enigmatic aspects of the documentary is its title, “The Pigeon Tunnel.” This title holds particular significance for le Carré, as he reveals it has, at some point, been the working title for all of his novels. The title draws from a vivid childhood memory — a visit with his father to a shooting club, where pigeons were funneled through tunnels, only to be shot once they broke free. Those pigeons that avoided this gruesome fate returned to their cages, trapped once more. Le Carré describes this memory as haunting, prompting the audience to ponder the reasons behind its enduring grip on his psyche. Yet, as he humbly concedes, the true meaning of this image is open to interpretation.
Morris skillfully presents these rich anecdotes, thoughtful observations and candid confessions within a captivating cinematic framework. The darkly pulsating Philip Glass score perfectly complements the narrative. While some re-enactments add visual metaphors to the storytelling, most are unnecessary, as le Carré eloquence and storytelling prowess create vivid mental images. The line between fact and fiction remains blurry, even for le Carré himself.
“The Pigeon Tunnel” may not reach the revelatory heights of some of Morris’s previous works, it serves as a fitting cinematic epilogue for John le Carré. The film subtly captures the dynamic between le Carré and Morris, revealing a sense of intrigue and tension. It explores the intricate and enigmatic mind of an author who left an indelible mark on the world of spy fiction. ♦