From every perspective, John le Carré lived a highly enviable life, a sense confirmed over and over again in The Pigeon Tunnel, Errol Morris’ elaborate, super-smart sizing up of one of the most successful writers of the past century. The author gained fame as a novelist fine-tuned to examine the many layers of intrigue, rivalry, deception, ruthlessness and intelligence employed in the epic battle between East and West in the second half of the 20th century, one that, rather remarkably, never exploded into World War III.
A hefty miniseries would be required to illuminate and express all the knowledge and expertise brought to bear in le Carré’s voluminous output (he wrote 31 books and much else). The similarly prodigious Morris patiently waited until the author, whose real name was David Cornwall, was ready to sit down and talk; it was, unsurprisingly, the author’s final interview, as he died shortly thereafter, in December 2020. The result overflows with fascinating material, even as you get the sense that what we’re hearing and seeing represents the mere tip of a self-protective iceberg. Such was the life of spies and the man who so acutely wrote about what he knew of them.
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The first thing you notice about the film is how elaborate it is — word is that it cost $10 million to make, a great deal for a documentary. Morris loads it with information and insights, as well as abundant narration, music and interstitial shots, including the titular pigeons being released and shot at by sportsmen. But there is one aspect that is even more evident: In his on-camera narration and storytelling, le Carré speaks with abundant authority, clarity and specificity, with every word ready to be spoken and never an “um,” hesitation, pause, redundancy, self-correction or momentary uncertainty. His delivery could not be more confident and clear, his memory impeccable, even though he was nearly 90 when he died in 2020.
The major factor in his life, at least the first part of it, was his mother’s abandonment of the family, when the lad was 5 years old, to run off with another man; he only ever met his mum again decades later. His education sent him hither and yon, without much parental intimacy; he learned multiple languages, taught, moved into the intelligence corps (a story unto itself) and had two novels published before breaking through in 1963 with the international bestseller The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Only then did he leave his government job to become a full-time writer.
Morris crams his work with insightful talk not only from the horse’s mouth but numerous observers and former colleagues; as he insists, “A writer’s task is to steal from life.” The author sits with his interlocutor in a simple elegant room and it’s a rare occasion to see the often tricky Morris treating his subject as a full equal, as well he might. Both of them are listeners highly attuned to what is being said to them, and Morris has, not infrequently, shrewdly set up his subjects in order to drop bombs on them in the hope of triggering some strong reaction, which sometimes has opened a door on the truth.
There’s no need for such subterfuge with le Carré, not that Morris would get away with any tidbits of information that the subject might try to trick the cagy old spy into revealing. Thus a very agreeable balance is achieved, one which sees both men live up to their reputations as very smart fellows who could never be pressured into spilling any beans.
There is much to revel in here, a quite special occasion on which to enjoy two very smart and experienced men with many interesting things to say about many things. No spy will ever willingly reveal everything, but what we get here is more than enough for one evening.
Title: The Pigeon Tunnel
Distributor: Apple TV+
Release date: October 20, 2023
Director: Errol Morris
Running time: 1 hr 32 min
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