THE PIGEON TUNNEL Review: Heady Swirl of Conversation on History and Lies

Errol Morris directs John le Carré's final and most personal interview.

Contributing Writer; Toronto, Canada (@triflic)
THE PIGEON TUNNEL Review: Heady Swirl of Conversation on History and Lies

“It is very rare to get this opportunity. To talk about history and philosophy of history.'

Errol Morris is a man of intellect. A man of opportunities. The latter springs from his own curiosities, his sense of the world comes from perception and narrative. And what is history if not narrative?
In his book A Wilderness of Error, on the trials of soldier-physician Jeffrey MacDonald, a man who was accused of murdering his wife and young girls in their home on an American military base around the time where the Manson gang was at large, Morris posits that the foundation of narrative is a more powerful force than truth. A book, and eventual television series, was made on MacDonald via his biographer at the time (Joe McGinniss), and came along a decade later, which overrode any possibility of objective truth.
The result was that a possibly innocent man was punished for having been bulldozed by a seductive narrative. In his 1988 film The Thin Blue Line, Morris made the case, cinematically -- often through recreations, their own kind of narrative -- that a man was wrongly convicted for murder by a corrupt justice system in Texas. That man was freed from prison as a result of the film. 
Morris spends a lot of effort in his filmmaking (and perhaps even more in print) on the stories that photographs, politicians, prisoners, and media seem to tell us, and why they are often tricky things. We imperfect humans, with our biases and our beliefs of what is right and what is wrong, position morality (and memory) backwards as much as forwards. We are a confused and often petty species, although capable of flashes of intellect and wit. Morris is very, very good at holding up a looking glass to the human paradox.
All this is to say, when Morris gets the opportunity to do an long and intimate interview with spy novelist, John le Carré, it is a meeting of kindred spirits. David Cornwell (who wrote under the pen name John Le Carré) was a man who picked at, and turned over, the post WW2 Gordian Knot.
It was a problem insoluble in its own terms of how the world operated (like nested Russian dolls) in the paranoid era of the Cold War. His award winning spy novels, such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, have been adapted (and re-adapted) into hefty and significant television series and films for decades.
In his youth, Cornwell was a bagman for his con-artist and deadbeat father, eventually an educator in British Academia, and even briefly was employed as an MI5 officer in the late 50s. All of which seemed to offer a heady cocktail of insight, disillusion, and creative extrapolation into the string-pullers of the world.
If it was a gift for the director to speak at length (and with a camera crew) to the author before his passing in 2020, then it is an absolute treasure to see and hear the result of these conversations --  meticulously framed, edited, and scored with entertaining precision and visual iconography. It should be familiar rhythm at this point for anyone who has seen Morris’ films.
His high sense of style (and structure) is a sly path to introspection. Each one is eyeing the other up against their reputation, interviewing one another as it were, while telling them that they are doing so. It is open and defensive simultaneously. The tension is interesting more as show than as an obstacle; it's self awareness on both parties. 
The Pigeon Tunnel is as good, possibly better, than the Oscar winning The Fog Of War, where a thorough and thoughtful discussion was had with famous (infamous) Secretary of State Robert McNamara. What Morris earnestly gleans from one of America’s more significant witnesses to (and architect of) history, he intimately (if playfully) abstracts with one of Britain’s great bureaucratic fantasists.
Mischievous bon mots such as, "The spy is often at the centre of the world’s great game," or "a double agent is exciting in and of itself," may not seem as deep or weary as McNamara’s hard lessons learned in hindsight. I do believe there is something more here, perhaps even more of the essence of men in a position of either petty or powerful control.  
"The Pigeon Tunnel" was a working title for many le Carré novels before it became the title of his auto-biography. Morris may or may not consider his film an adaptation of the biography. It flows from discourse, twin performances of interrogator and subject, rather than the usual screenwriting adaptation. Either way, it offers the director many a chance to be literal and figurative about the eponymous urban dwelling fowl who fly between the walls and towers of the worlds great cities, and occasionally poop on the buildings and statues.
The tunnel part of the title is both a shooting gallery and a circular trap. Visuals of broken egg shells and fluttering feathers abound. Rooms, as film-sets here, are both warmly filled with books, or are poignantly empty and stark. It's a way of visualising a certain kind institutional allure, and the fact that there is no rolled-up parchment in the innermost room with all the secrets and answers. Like fiat currency, it is perhaps the belief of such things that keeps society spinning.
Nestled within is Cornwell the man, with his dulcet, upper-class British tones and keen turn of phrase. It's an affectation from his working class days, when he was often bankrupt, the roots and byproduct of his father's hustle and larceny. He was given a posh education but grew up as a poseur in enemy territory.
There was much flux in his life; many things disappeared. Cornwell explains how he created the affect and attitude, a reinvention of his own world to show that he was not a dupe. To dupe other people is the thing. To show off. A vanity. His self-awareness is a powerful tool, though, and he channels it into a subtle kind of showmanship. 
The last three years have been been challenging, particularly on the global stage. Ironically, Cornwell was not around to witness the geopolitical tumult of the Pandemic, Ukraine and Israel and the deluge of misinformation and disinformation around such things. Perhaps this is for the better, as The Pigeon Tunnel ends up a more universal thing, even as it is specifically a 20th century thing.
If history is storytelling, and storytelling is creating order out of chaos, well, then, so are conspiracy theories. Morris and Cornwell, dwelling on juxtapositions such as these at length, is quite a lot of substance and material. What an opportunity to be the fly on the wall for such wonderful stuff.

The film is available on Apple TV+ (and in a limited theatrical release) on Friday, October 20, 2023. Now Streaming covers international and indie genre films and TV shows that are available on legal streaming services.
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ArtAuthorBiographyDavid CornwellDocumentaryErrol MorrisHistoryInterviewJohn Le CarreJohn le CarréMI:6PerceptionPoliticsSpyThe Cold WarThe Pigeon TunnelThe Spy Who Came in From The ColdTIFFTinker Tailor Soldier SpyTruthWriter

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