There’s a new Errol Morris documentary playing on Apple TV+ called The Pigeon Tunnel, and it’s about the British ex-spy David Cornwell, better known as celebrated spy fiction writer John Le Carré. The film is very polished and informative and full of interview material with Le Carré, apparently unprecedented in its candor, about his strange and secretive life, recorded not long before he died in 2020.
It’s an extremely accomplished work, reflecting Morris’s long and lauded career in the documentary form, specializing in extremely revealing in-depth portraits of odd people, places, and topics. Unfortunately, I didn’t really love it, probably because I’m so familiar with the once-revolutionary stylings of Morris.
This is saddening for me, because I used to be such an admirer of Morris’s films. That was way back in the days of Vernon, Florida (1981), The Thin Blue Line (1988), Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (1997), and Mr Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr (1999). It’s hard to convey now how exciting a director he seemed then, fearlessly reinstating practices that had become practically taboo in documentaries since the cinéma vérite revolution. He certainly wasn’t the first to reclaim these elements, but he was definitely the showiest.
Morris’s films were fiercely stylized, with dramatic editing choices calling attention to the eccentric and personal nature of his filmmaking and how intentional it was to make arguments and whip up emotions through dramatic use of cinematography and lighting and musical scores.
He even restaged scenes — the ultimate no-no — and made those scenes as artificial-looking as possible, as if trying to infuriate all the dedicated observational, fly-on-the-wall documentary filmmakers he knew. Iconoclastic documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog was a major pal of his in his early years and clearly a mentor.
Morris used to be an equally fearless interview subject. I still remember him saying during a festival Q and A session that many viewers, who’d learned their postmodern lessons by heart, told him they thought The Thin Blue Line, with all those reenactments of a murder that appeared to change according to the different accounts of those being interviewed, meant to convey that, ultimately, the truth is unknowable.
Absolutely wrong, Morris said. The truth is out there, and it’s absolutely knowable. It’s just that there are so many liars and people with vested interests in having the truth not be known that you have to dig like crazy to uncover it. Not coincidentally, Morris had once worked as a private detective.
He invented an interviewing gizmo he called the Interrotron, because he liked the way the word had parts of “terror” and “interrogate” in it. Faced with this gizmo while being interviewed, the interview subjects saw Morris’s face on a screen as he asked questions, which is why his interview subjects all tend to relate to the camera with such apparent openness and plenty of seemingly direct eye contact with the viewer, far more so than in ordinary “talking heads” documentaries.
Morris also came up with interview processes all his own, including the “three-minute rule.” He’d discovered that if you let the camera run on a subject after they’re done answering a question, and you don’t interrupt with a follow-up question, they’ll succumb to the pressure of the silent gaze and keep talking. You’ll often get your most revealing statements, he claimed, if you’ll just let people talk for three minutes straight, an eternity in film terms.
All of Morris’s patented processes are present in The Pigeon Tunnel, and it beats me why they all seem rather tired now, a kind of schtick that no longer works as well as in the early days. Maybe he met his match in John Le Carré, who can hold his poker face and maintain his crusty British silence for three minutes — or three years, if necessary. You can’t outfox an old spy with devices like an Interrotron, not someone who spent many years in MI5 and MI6 — “the secret world,” as Le Carré called it. And then he wrote about it in many semi-autobiographical novels drawing on his own experiences and those of his colleagues, such as The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), Smiley’s People (1979,) A Perfect Spy (1986), and many others.
Maybe that’s another part of the problem, the sense that Le Carré has already dined out on these tales in so many different forms. And that telling his tales gets us no closer to “the truth” of him and his life anyway. Le Carré keeps undercutting the whole project of the documentary by insisting there’s nothing inside that innermost chamber where people think all the hidden knowledge is hoarded. There’s nothing in the “secret” room, whether that’s a metaphor for the depths of people’s supposed souls or in the innermost workings of governments and international systems, he says.
Bullshit, the old Morris would’ve said once — and he would have gone on digging till he came up with something pretty astonishing. But here we get only depressing hints about what seems to be Le Carré’s tired old morality that he claims he doesn’t have. We seem to glimpse the real Tory underneath the fake Tory mask he taught himself to wear in his youth, instead of the supposedly cold-blooded postmodern man with no “there” there.
Politically, it has been argued, Le Carré has moved to the left in his lifetime. He described himself in 2015 as “more radical in old age than I’ve ever been.” Le Carré’s leftward drift, in this take on it, is expressed as a kind of liberal rage at George W. Bush’s warmongering and disastrous environmental stance and Tony Blair’s kowtowing to American policies, all peppered with the kind of anti-communist fears that animated him back in the Cold War, even accusing Blair of being a socialist.
In a mildly revealing scene in Morris’s documentary, Le Carré relates how a Russian agent once offered to set him up for dinner with Kim Philby, the notorious British spy at the top of the profession who defected to the Soviet Union and turned out to have been working for the Soviets all along. Though Le Carré was as fascinated by Philby as anybody, he refuses the invitation because he claims he can’t imagine meeting “the Queen’s representative” — the British ambassador in Russia he has an appointment with — as well as the arch-traitor to the Queen, on the same day.
Really? That doesn’t take so very much imagination, surely, for someone who claims to have been a role player throughout life, just like his con artist father. His father, Ronnie Cornwell, made and lost several fortunes and did stints in several prisons, all by pretending, with considerable charm and inventiveness, to be a rich Englishman who had vast business concerns.
Of course, Le Carré’s way of presenting himself could all be another act, playing the supposedly hollow and jaded organization-man spy who is nevertheless, deep down, a typical British toff unquestioningly loyal to the Queen, no matter how cynically and artfully he might write. This might just be another role Le Carré decided to play in the end, for reasons of his own. Hard to know, since it has plausible consistency either way — he could be either a sincere and ideologically addled old git or a wily actor playing one.
But then there’s the central evil deed Le Carré confesses, or perhaps brags about — it’s hard to tell. When he was a young Oxford University student in the 1950s, having been recruited by British intelligence to report on left-wing activities among students, he pointed the finger at his own friend, an impassioned communist named Stanley Mitchell. Le Carré even had Mitchell’s rooms burglarized in a search for subversive materials. Ultimately, the names of Mitchell’s fellow student communists also fell into the hands of British intelligence.
Le Carré mined these particular experiences for his 1986 novel, A Perfect Spy, and he told various versions of the story in old interviews, most of them evasive and rationalizing his betrayal of his friend. In Morris’s documentary, he seems to be engaged in a bolder statement of his own role as an informer. He claims, in Morris’s film, to have contacted Mitchell fifty years after the fact and admitted what he’d done, adding that Mitchell called him a swine and asked how he could sink so low.
“It was a kind of war,” Le Carré supposedly told his old friend, “and you were on the wrong side.”
“But what was the right side?” Morris interjects from off camera.
And Le Carré laughs, allowing that it was very hard to tell, which expresses his ambiguity about the unheroic era that became his greatest subject. But if you read quotes from the correspondence that continued between Le Carré and Mitchell, which aren’t reported in the film, Le Carré’s handling of this betrayal gets steadily grimmer and more repulsive, a mixture of apology and self-pitying justification and ugly accusations:
In their correspondence he wavered between apologising for the actions of a “nasty, vengeful little orphan with a psychopathic liar for a father and a boy-scout self-image” and justifying his behaviour on the grounds they were looking for “secret communists and potential traitors.” The friendship was said to be restored eventually but the tone of Le Carré’s last letter, in which he accused his friend of “submitting your life and excellent intellect to the cause of world communism,” and of showing no empathy for his “own journey” through British intelligence, suggests only a partial reconciliation.
It’s pretty remarkable hubris, expecting empathy for your lying, betraying, coldly self-centered spy’s “journey” from the very friend you ratted out to MI5. But it makes sense when you’re looking at Le Carré’s.