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The great Errol Morris returns this year with another profile documentary, “The Pigeon Tunnel,” but this one doesn’t come with the inherent oddity of the subjects of films like “Mr. Death” or “Tabloid.” The man who has revolutionized the interview process on film finds one of his most intriguing suspects in David Cornwell, better known to millions as John le Carré. The author of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and many more becomes a fascinating interview subject in front of Morris’ camera, largely because of how uninterested the director of “Gates of Heaven” and “The Fog of War” is in a traditional filmed conversation. Of course, Morris doesn’t deliver a standard bio-doc. You won’t learn much about Cornwell’s love life or net worth here. He’s far more interested in how Cornwell’s life influenced the work of le Carré and vice versa, unpacking how the author’s complex relationship with his father impacted his worldview and writing, changing the spy game in all forms of fiction forever.
“The Pigeon Tunnel” is both the title of Cornwell’s memoir The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life and the working title he used for most of his books. It refers to a place the young Cornwell would visit with his conman father Ronnie in France, where rich men would shoot pigeons over the Mediterranean. The trick was that the pigeons were bred on the roof and then forced through a tunnel to the shore, where they would be summarily shot by the people waiting for them. It’s so filled with rich subtext when one thinks about how much of le Carré’s work is based on rigged games. So many of his characters think they’re escaping the place from which they were born, only to find themselves pushed into a trap, shot by men who think they're doing something when they're really just winning a game they can't lose.
After serving as a spy himself, Cornwell became an author of bestselling books about men who betray other men. Morris gets this deeply intelligent subject to tell stories about his grotesque father, a man who literally asked for payment for services rendered as his parent while David was a youth once he knew his son could afford it, and they reveal the thematic influences under le Carré’s work without being blunt about it. Cornwell describes his father with the eloquence of a writer. “Whether he believed in God is mysterious, but he was certain God believed in him” is just one example of brilliant writing in le Carré’s immaculate style. It’s one of the best ways to describe an overly confident man like Ronnie Cornwell that I could imagine.
David Cornwell reveals a childhood that didn’t have much reality but was thick with the art of performance. In his awful father, he learned how people can think one thing and do another, which is essential to the arts of both espionage and fiction. There’s a brief moment in which it feels like “The Pigeon Tunnel” will elevate to the top tier of Morris’ work when Cornwell almost turns the table on him, noting an interviewer is also looking to figure out something about himself. It got me thinking about what the interviews of Errol Morris say about what he’s trying to figure out, and I wished the film lingered on that moment a bit longer. However, the placement of that beat right before Cornwell goes back into another story about Ronnie made me wonder if Morris is at a place where he’s considering his father-son dynamics and what has inspired his work.
It's clear that either Morris, Cornwell, or both chose the terms of the interview of “The Pigeon Tunnel” before they sat down. The direct focus on Ronnie and the concepts that conversation unearths—betrayal, subterfuge, greed, etc.—might frustrate some people who want a bigger picture look at le Carré’s work. That’s not what these brilliant gentlemen are going for with this film. It’s almost more like a companion to some of the most popular books of all time—not an explainer or even piece of historical trivia about their execution. Instead, this documentary reveals how even the most complex spy fiction can have a foundation in the relationship between a son and his father.
This review was filed from the premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. "The Pigeon Tunnel" will premiere on Apple TV+ on October 20th.