Three years after his death, David Cornwell springs one last mystery on us

Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo

The Pigeon Tunnel
Apple TV+, Oct. 20
3.5 out of 5

Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris isn’t afraid of confronting his subjects to find the truth behind the “truth”. Memorably, he gave William McNamara (the so-called architect of the Vietnam War), Donald Rumsfeld (who engineered the 2003 invasion of Iraq) and human 4chan board Steve Bannon, enough rope to hang themselves (figuratively) on camera.

Morris used those terrible men’s unbridled hubris against them. But what to do when a subject is self-aware down to the last blood cell? The Pigeon Tunnel pits Morris against such a man — one who has made a career of depicting the moral ambiguity of men, nations and ideologies: David Cornwell, nom de plume John le Carré.

The film takes its title from a 2016 memoir by Cornwell. And in the last interview the author of such Cold War classics as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy gave before his death in December 2020, he demonstrates wit, charm and resistance towards the narrative Morris is trying to create around him: that he was shaped by betrayal and grew to become a cynic.

Looking at Cornwell’s background, nobody would blame him if he did. His father was an unreliable conman, and he encountered similar behaviour among his colleagues at the British intelligence services. It’s no wonder his books depict the spy game as crawling with traitors and essentially useless. In his words “the East and the West invented the enemy they needed.”

Among the most compelling reveals of The Pigeon Tunnel is the fact Le Carré novels are uncomfortably close to real life, particularly the Smiley saga and the borderline autobiographical The Perfect Spy. While he acknowledges the existence of good and evil, most people in the life he left behind move in grey spaces, a world in which simple one-upmanship carries more power than a moral compass.

While the top half of the film is tight and enthralling, the second half can’t sustain such high level and comes apart at the seams. Still, it’s among the better Errol Morris docs, not a small feat. ■