THE STORY – Filmmaker Errol Morris pulls back the curtain on the storied life and career of David Cornwell, the former spy known to the literary world as John le Carré.
THE CAST – David Cornwell aka. John le Carré
THE TEAM – Errol Morris (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 94 Minutes
It’s easy to ramble on about how influential the work of the late great David Cornwell aka. John le Carré is. The famed novelist was a major bestseller, making iconic spy novels such as “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” and “A Perfect Spy.” His work became a unique counterbalance to the spy genre and was a stark departure from the work of author Ian Flemming (creator of James Bond). He was an author, a spy, and, overall, a very complicated man with a troubled past. All of which is precisely what attracted legendary filmmaker Errol Morris to cover these topics in the documentary film “The Pigeon Tunnel.” What follows is a film with far more behind the surface than it would appear.
“The Pigeon Tunnel” (semi-adapted from le Carré’s memoir of the same) covers significant moments of the novelist’s life, spanning from his rough childhood to his career as an intelligence officer for MI5 and MI6. Audiences see how these impactful moments from his life shaped the very novels he’d eventually write. Le Carré personality is engaging, as, throughout the film, you see why Morris is interested in not just the writer but the man behind the words. Le Carré’s dry wit and keen observational skills make him a spellbinding subject to “interrogate,” as described in the film. Morris plays into the mystery behind the man, who, although open about some of the darkest moments of his life, is still very guarded. While watching the film, audiences often can’t tell if every single thing told is the exact truth. You only get what le Carré wants you to know. This creates an exciting rapport between Morris and le Carré. The entire film is a conversation between the two, as there’s no use of interviews from other individuals in the documentary. This incentivizes Morris to let audiences attempt to know le Carré as he continues throughout his life.
Morris, whose previous work includes “The Fog of War” and “Gates of Heaven,” has a talent for letting the subject of his films shine. Le Carré is front and center as Morris uses a mixture of footage from film adaptions of Le Carré’s work, previous interviews, and, interestingly enough, live-action recreations of moments from Le Carré’s life. Morris, in a way, is adapting le Carré life into a feature as his voice practically guides you along these memories. These reenactments feel hazy and hallucinatory at times, like a faded memory. They serve their purpose perfectly, but sometimes, these sequences can radiate History Channel-level quality filmmaking. Nevertheless, as a viewer, it is hard not to be invested. The film is also paced terrifically, taking advantage of its brief ninety-four-minute runtime. At certain moments, “The Pigeon Tunnel” is staged like a thriller, especially during scenes when le Carré is talking about his career as an intelligence officer. Morris, of course, knows when to reel it back to try to navigate through more somber and emotionally revealing moments, which balances the film quite nicely. One of the film’s greatest strengths is the score by Phillip Glass and Paul Leonard-Morgan. It radically alters the film’s energy, giving it a propulsive power that lasts throughout the film’s entire runtime. The score’s intensity helps give the documentary a sense of stakes in a way. Structurally, the film is incredibly put together, as one would expect from an Errol Morris documentary.
Although very engaging for those familiar with le Carré’s work, it would be easy to see how those unfamiliar with him would not be dialed into the same frequency as those more dedicated audience members. Still, Morris makes “The Pigeon Tunnel” incredibly entertaining as it could’ve played out as a more traditionally structured documentary. His style as a filmmaker is just unbeatable, and his vastly different personality from le Carré makes for fun moments of levity between the two. It also helps that despite the amazing work of le Carré, the man himself is also undoubtedly interesting to analyze and interpret. The way he talks about his relationship with his parents (especially his father, who inspired “A Perfect Spy”) is equal parts fascinating and heartbreaking. Le Carré thoughts on his romances are off the table as he clearly states what he will and will not be discussed. The beginning of the film starts with le Carré talking about creating a dependency on the people he’s interrogating. To develop a bond that can’t be defined as genuine or artificial. Morris and le Carré might not have been close behind the cameras (who knows, that’s never delved into the film), but there is something genuine about the conversation between the two. Despite these safeguards put up by le Carré, Morris navigates his intellectual landmines. What results is a very memorable documentary that will continue to showcase why John le Carré was not only a one-of-a-kind talent but an irreplaceable personality.