The Pigeon Tunnel, the New Film About John le Carré, is Intimate and Illuminating

John le Carré (born David Cornwell) hated giving interviews. “First you invent yourself, then you believe the invention”, he wrote in his autobiography The Pigeon Tunnel. Despite these reservations, Le Carré/Cornwell ended up participating in a documentary about his life. Surprisingly, the resulting film—also called The Pigeon Tunnel, and directed by Errol Morris, feels so forthright in its exploration of the many inventions that make up a complex character with a rich literary mind.

Le Carré’s novels draw in millions of readers with thrilling plot twists, but they keep them with rich portrayals of espionage and its moral ambiguities. The search for useful intelligence is always shrouded in layers of bureaucratic maneuvering, shifting allegiances and layers of conspiracy. It is almost impossible to tell who’s winning at any one time. (“Rule One of the Cold War,” he writes in Pigeon Tunnel, is that “nothing, absolutely nothing, is what it seems.”) Nobody comes out intact. The higher-ups wonder if their cause justifies their more unsavory methods. The pawns—innocents and true believers—usually end up dead or hopelessly shattered. Le Carré crafts penetrating portraits of the all-too-human players in this impenetrable international game. In The Pigeon Tunnel, he writes about his formative love of German literature: it called to him because of both its lyricism and severity. “The trick, it seemed to me,” he writes, “was to disguise the one with the other.” Le Carré’s writing seems to pull off just such a “trick”: cynicism and romanticism constantly transform and bleed into each other.

Le Carré’s memoir is a fascinating mosaic of wide-ranging (though sometimes scattered) accounts of an exciting life. (He met an array of famous figures from Yasser Arafat to Margaret Thatcher. One whole section is devoted entirely to the actor Alec Guinness, who starred in TV adaptations of his work.) Through his recounting of his brief career in the secret service and a longer one in the diplomatic corps in Germany, the reader starts to get a sense of his world view.

By far the most compelling aspect of Morris’s Pigeon Tunnel is its portrait of Cornwell as Le Carré—as the writer with the freedom to mold the truth

He suffers his first political disillusionment at the number of Nazis whose reputations were laundered and were installed in the new German government. At the same time, Le Carré, the budding novelist, sees the moral ambiguities that play out on an individual human level, encountering ex-Nazis seeking some way to atone. As he travels to conflict zones around the world (in places like Cambodia, Palestine and the Democratic Republic of Congo), he finds sympathetic and heroic people amidst political struggles. There is a hope and love in humans set against politics and ideologies, which he treats with skepticism or contempt. These vignettes are often despairing, moving, and morally perplexing.

These episodes inevitably pale in comparison to the most compelling parts of the book, where Le Carré/Cornwell’s reckons with the influence of his father, Ronnie. A con man of epic proportions, Ronnie had multiple families, a slew of dodgy businesses, several elaborate schemes (including one for an amphibious car), and did time in multiple international prisons, some of which Cornwell had to bail him out of. His journey into the past, to try to find the truth below Ronnie’s myriad deceptions, is told with a bracing candor. Ronnie’s deceptions left Cornwell with a “need to cobble together an identity” himself. His continued attempts to reveal the truth about his will draw a line between them. (“I ask myself which bits of me still belong to Ronnie, and how much of me is mine.”) His obsession with Ronnie reveals Cornwell’s belief in the links between the various kinds of pretense and duplicity in his life – Ronnie’s cons, the deceptions of espionage and the politesse of diplomacy, and then finally, his writing.

The film version of The Pigeon Tunnel is a shifting and slippery attempt to tease out these different types of deception. Morris—the famed documenter of crime, war, and political blunders–is an apt choice to bring Cornwell’s recollections and confessions to the screen. However, the relationship between director and subject can only be a peculiar one. Will pitting the master interviewer against the former professional interrogator only lead to a stalemate? Early on in the film, Cornwell notes that the successful interrogator must assure their subject that he can provide something that they need. Morris, though hardly cuddly, does seem to give this to Cornwell. In his films, Morris famously makes his presence known in his films as a slightly-braying off-screen voice, delivering follow-up questions that are now encouraging, now prodding. In Pigeon Tunnel, however, the relationship between Morris and Cornwell remains mostly collegial. Morris clearly views Cornwell as a fellow traveler in a pursuit of truth and the boundaries of self-knowledge. Cornwell, for his part, seems more than game. At one point, Morris says that he views Cornwell as a poet of “self-loathing,” an assessment with which he readily agrees.

The intensity of Cornwell’s passion for writing actually comes through more strongly in Morris’s film than it does in his own memoir

Focusing solely on Cornwell’s various careers and his relationship with Ronnie, Morris’s Pigeon Tunnel focuses on the search for truth as part of the author’s identity. Morris has always chafed at the suggestion that his films present the nonexistence of objective truth. Even if this truth is ultimately inaccessible, it is possible (and perhaps morally necessary) to get as close to it as possible.  Cornwell agrees, and from this shared foundation their exploration of Cornwell’s life and career begins. “Truth,” Cornwell writes in his memoir, lies “not in fact, but in nuance.” In letting Cornwell tell his story—which he seems to do in a notably candid manner—Morris’s film teases out these nuances.

Visually, at least, the film embraces the slipperiness of this objective truth. Using five different cameras, the film shows Cornwell as a doubled, fractured presence in his talking head interviews. Documents and photos are cut up to snippets and fragments. Glossy, expensive reenactments show fuzzy memories. These reenactments reflect Cornwell’s process as a writer, in which (in his view) he takes the truth and refracts it as fiction. There are many juicy, informative new tidbits (particularly the segment about the famed double agent Kim Philby, who Cornwell views with a contempt more that is more complicated than he’d like to admit). But by far the most compelling aspect of Morris’s Pigeon Tunnel is its portrait of Cornwell as Le Carré—as the writer with the freedom to mold the truth. The intensity of Cornwell’s passion for writing actually comes through more strongly in Morris’s film than it does in his own memoir. Cornwell clearly believes that his writing is not only the great pleasure of his life, but also that it has saved him—saved him from becoming a con man like Ronnie, or a self-loathing spy like George Smiley, his most famous creation.

Among the flashy, atmospheric reenactments, Pigeon Tunnel the film includes clips of the many film and television adaptations of the Le Carré novels. It makes sense—film, after all, is a visual medium—but the taut suspense and moody melancholy that his work summons up so easily forge a gripping and alluring mood. In tracing these many ties between reality and fiction, the film builds a portrait of the artist as an old man scarred by childhood and disillusioned by politics, yet alert and alive to the world.

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