Movie Review: Cornwell/le Carré, through Errol Morris’ lens, in riveting ‘The Pigeon Tunnel’

Errol Morris’s conversation with the late David Cornwell in “ The Pigeon Tunnel ” is fascinating even without the filmmaking flourishes.

Cornwell, better known by his pen name John le Carré, was the spy-turned-novelist whose tales of espionage and betrayal defined an era, gave literary heft to a genre and inspired numerous adaptations. And here, Morris challenges him to reflect on his unconventional childhood — his con-man father, his mother who left him at 5 never to return — on through his time in the secret services and beyond. You hear how he quite literally began life on the run, how he learned to be a “little spy” from quite a young age, how his father loomed so large in his imagination and how untrustworthy his own memory even turned out to be.

It could have been just a transcript; It would have been a must-read.

Cornwell died in 2020 at 89, and this film which will be streaming on Apple TV+ Friday, is said to be his final and “most candid” interview. That might simply be marketing-hype but, of course, this is not just an interview. It’s an Errol Morris film, right down to the Philip Glass score. And while the Interrotron and the reenactments might not be the revolutionary storytelling devices they once were, they’re almost comforting at this point and no less effective at creating a mood and an emotional experience around a sharp conversation.

Morris turns “The Pigeon Tunnel” into a le Carré-style thriller itself — a probing examination at the man behind George Smiley, the betrayals of his life, both to him and by him, and up through his fascination with spies and double agents. It scarcely matters if you’ve never read or even heard of “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.” At the heart of “The Pigeon Tunnel” are some wonderful, and chilling, observations about life and the nature of man, and a fascinating story about a master storyteller.

Like any good spy or novelist for that matter, Cornwell is as equally interested in his interviewer — or interrogator. He cheekily uses these words almost interchangeably. The nature of any interview has as much to do with the subject as it does the questioner.

“This is a performance,” Cornwell says. “You need to know something about the ambitions of the people you’re talking to.”

And to understand Cornwell, or at least poke at some truths about him, you have to look at this father, Ronnie Cornwell. Ronnie was a con man straight out of a novel — charming, contradictory, always on the brink of success, sometimes on the run, occasionally in jail and never second guessing himself. He taught Cornwall the art of the performance and made childhood for him and his brother “terribly exciting,” if fraught and false. Later in life, he asked his now wealthy son to repay him for costs spent on his education.

Once, at a hotel in Monte Carlo as a child, Cornwell remembers fixating on the tunnel that pigeons would fly through to provide ample shooting targets for paying men. They were bred on the roof, sent through the tunnel to either die or go back to the roof once again to tempt death all over again. Many of his books, he said, had the working title “The Pigeon Tunnel,” which he found to be a metaphor for a lot of things. It took until his memoir in 2016 for it to stick to publication.

There might not be anything quite so shocking as Robert McNamara admitting mistakes, but Cornwell has his own crosses, including regrets about painting the secret services as “so bloody brilliant” at the wrong time. He even wonders if he’d have been a traitor in a different life. But, he says, “luckily I found a home for my larceny.”

Cornwell also seemed at peace with himself and his purpose (looking in the mirror was only hard, he said, when he had a hangover). He’d discovered that writing was his freedom and he was happiest when doing so — a revelation that everyone should be so lucky to have for themselves. That, or, to have Errol Morris oversee their last interview.

“The Pigeon Tunnel,” an Apple Original Films release streaming Friday on Apple TV+, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association for “brief language, some violence, smoking.” Running time: 93 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.

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