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It’s appropriate that the new film by Errol Morris, perhaps the most theoretically minded of documentarians, should provide a keen reminder that most problems of substance are also problems of form. The documentary takes its title, “The Pigeon Tunnel,” from the 2016 memoir by David Cornwell, better known by his pen name, John le Carré, and it is composed almost entirely of interviews in which the supreme spy novelist talks to Morris about his life and the people in it. (Cornwell died in 2020; the interviews in this film were conducted in 2019.) From the start, Morris makes the film’s creation part of its subject. He opens with a clip in which Cornwell, turning the tables on Morris in a way that manifestly delights the filmmaker, asks, “Who are you?,” and explains why he wants to know. Being interviewed, he says, “is a performance art,” and he wants to know whom he’s “performing to,” because “you need to know something about the ambitions of the people you’re talking to.”
For Cornwell, the matter is of more than theoretical interest. Having been a military interrogator for British intelligence, he compares the interviews with Morris to his own efforts to coax answers from enemy subjects by way of “the relationship”—by “establishing their dependence on the interrogator.” Yet, despite Cornwell’s striving for reflexivity, for getting behind the onscreen talk to explore his relationship to Morris, nothing so dramatic takes place; the high-stakes mind games that he likes to think he’s playing never really occur. “The Pigeon Tunnel” (which is playing in theatres and streaming on Apple TV+) is nonetheless an absorbing, colorful self-portrait. I say “self” because, although Morris, as the filmmaker, doubtless made the many decisions that go into the composition of the portrait, the broad outlines are manifestly dictated by Cornwell as he talks onscreen. Morris intervenes both too little and too much, but the movie somehow still hits a sweet spot in the happy medium of those antipodal failings. All the same, it falls far short of its own theoretical perspectives, and, perhaps inadvertently, opens up others that it never directly addresses.
The main substance of the movie is Cornwell’s reminiscences of his father, Ronnie, a con man with big dreams and reckless schemes who struggled hectically to stay a step ahead of creditors and the law, and didn’t always succeed. He alternated between grandiose ways of life and desperate head-down flight (or worse). Cornwell’s mother, Olive, left when the boy was five, exhausted by Ronnie’s ways and exasperated by his infidelities, after which the déclassé aspirant to grandeur did his best to propel David into a class that he himself could never enter. Having succeeded, Cornwell’s father resented the social gap between them even as he strove to catch his son’s coattails. (Cornwell, writing as le Carré, discussed the relationship in a 2002 piece for The New Yorker, “In Ronnie’s Court.”) The subject that Morris pursues, and that Cornwell takes up with alacrity, is the connection between such an upbringing of romantic extremes—between the louche margins of high society and the actual underworld—and Cornwell’s career as, first, a spy, and then a spy novelist. “Betrayal fascinates me,” Morris declares, in voice-over, and he presses Cornwell to connect Ronnie’s fantasies and fabrications, lies and schemes and deceptions, with the lies and deceptions of espionage.
Unsurprisingly, Cornwell delivers a startling, gripping array of tales and observations, full of memorable and vivid descriptions. He recalls being sent, as a boy, to a racetrack—the bookies had barred his heavily indebted father on pain of violence—with a suitcase full of cash to be distributed among creditors and coming back with a suitcase full of fresh winnings. He describes his activities as a spy while still at Oxford, where the target was one of his best friends. He discusses Kim Philby, a British intelligence chief who, in 1963, was revealed to be a double agent for the Soviet Union, and declares that Philby is central to his self-conception as a spy and as a novelist. He talks of his experience of Berlin in the days after the Wall was erected. And he traces, poignantly and painfully, the reappearances of his father after the le Carré books had brought fame and wealth.
Such anecdotes lead Cornwell to barbed insights into the peculiar psychology of the spy. He explains his own recruitment into espionage in terms of fitting a profile of unmooredness, of seeking an “institutional embrace.” He mentions an element of political principle in his intrepid exploits but downplays it; what really drives the spy ahead, Cornwell suggests, is access to mighty secrets of grave import—“what the world contains at its inmost point,” he says, quoting Goethe’s “Faust.” What Morris asks about most insistently is the temptation to betray—to become a double agent—and Cornwell is more than happy to hold forth. In someone like Philby, he says, the institutional embrace gives way to a set of pathological extremes: the yearning to be loved by the ultimate recipients of stolen secrets, the vain presumption that “you’re the hub of the universe,” the pride of “passing pure gold” to one’s handlers. There was also, he suggests, the sheer thrill, the “addiction” to betrayal—something he likens to his father’s irresistible attraction to duplicity and to the dangerous gambles it entails. (He calls Ronnie a “crisis addict.”)
In short, Cornwell’s stories are pure gold. Morris, however, can’t resist adorning them with fillips and flourishes of his own. He adds clips from movie adaptations of le Carré’s books and from archival TV news reports and interviews, and punctuates the action with still photographs and press clippings. He films Cornwell from a panoply of angles; there are wide shots and closeups, images of Cornwell shot through doorways and others filmed head-on. The choppy editing draws attention to itself, perhaps suggesting that, in lieu of long skeins of speech, Cornwell’s remarks were assembled from snippets—that the interview itself is an ordering, an abstraction, rather than a confrontation or a connection. Yet no single camera setup is more revealing or analytical than any other, and the juxtapositions add little; the variety seems to betray a mere aversion to stasis and monotony, convention more than invention.
There is also the matter of the use of reënactments, a long-standing bugbear in documentary filmmaking and one inextricably associated with Morris, thanks to the success of his 1988 film “The Thin Blue Line,” which relied on extensive dramatic reconstructions of events discussed by the film’s interviewees. It’s a cursed practice, in part because few documentary filmmakers have as much of a flair for fiction as for nonfiction, but, more fundamentally, because the obligation to reflect what’s being said by a given interviewee makes dramatic freedom all but impossible, turning filmmakers into mere illustrators. This is very much the case in “The Pigeon Tunnel,” whose reënactments don’t come close to the dramatic power of Cornwell’s telling and also deprive the viewer of the chance to imagine more powerful images. There’s one exception, though, a dramatization that shows the “pigeon tunnel” of the title, which Cornwell saw, as a teen-ager, on a trip to Monte Carlo with his father. Cornwell describes in detail how birds were caught on a hotel roof and put into a tunnel, emerging at the other end at a beach where sport shooters took aim at them. Surviving birds, making their way back to the roof, got caught and tunnelled again; think Sisyphus but with bullets. This reënactment, however approximate, serves its purpose movingly because it gives specificity to an abstraction while also returning the material specifics to the metaphorical realm in which Cornwell experiences them.
Cornwell tells his stories with passion and style, but Morris wants more; he has higher abstractions in mind, such as the nature of betrayal and the telling of stories. Pushing and prodding Cornwell to probe the nature of fiction and truth, to philosophize about deception, Morris runs up against disappointment: Cornwell is out of his element there. He’s game to join Morris in these abstract romps, but his amiable efforts produce only unexceptional generalities about the subjectivity of truth. This is where Morris, having already done too much, now does too little: having raised ideas that he’s clearly more interested in than Cornwell is, he repeatedly questions Cornwell on them. In effect, he’s trying to get Cornwell to do his work for him—not out of laziness, it seems, but rather from respect and deference. He knows that Cornwell is the star and yields the stage to him, but the star is forced to navigate a thematic web entirely of the filmmaker’s creation.
The character missing from these discussions is Morris himself, who’s never seen onscreen with Cornwell. Morris, as a writer, is one of the great modern essayists about documentary filmmaking, and it’s a loss to the world of cinema both that he hasn’t been writing essays of late and also that he keeps his films sealed off from the essayist within. “The Pigeon Tunnel” cries out for Morris’s own involvement: cinematically simple compositions featuring him onscreen alongside Cornwell, intellectually assertive, speaking at length to bring his ideas clearly to light and to let Cornwell—and viewers—know who he is. There’s an essay or two lurking behind the film, and, though I hope Morris writes them, I wish he’d put them into the film in his own voice. It’s a movie in which Morris seems to be tying his own tongue behind his back, deferentially but frustratingly stifling his impulse to speak. The actual film that Morris delivers is delightful; the one he didn’t make, but that it implies, is great. ♦