Thursday, October 19, 2023

The Pigeon Tunnel, on Apple TV+

It is not so hard to figure out where David Cornwell, the spy novelist known as “John le Carre,” got his ideas. British intelligence posted him to West Berlin during the time the Berlin Wall was built and Kim Philby fled to the Soviet Union. He was also the son of a conman. Before his death in 2020, le Carre sat down for several long, relentlessly candid interviews that Errol Morris shaped into The Pigeon Tunnel, which premieres Friday on Apple TV+.

Many times, le Carre used “The Pigeon Tunnel” as a working title for his novels, but it finally stuck for his memoirs (which Morris sort of adapted). It refers to the pigeons used as live skeet targets at a Monte Carlo casino the young Cornwell visited with his degenerate father. Morris is just as obsessed with the pigeon imagery as le Carre was, if not more so judging from how often it appears in the doc.

Pigeon Tunnel
is definitely a very Morris-ish doc, but it stylistically and thematically suits his subject, who wrote about deceit after experiencing it first-hand. Le Carre/Cornwell clearly expresses his expectation that the film would serve as a final testament or summation, so his answers are always brutally honest, even when things are still a bit ambiguous in his own mind.

For le Carre fans and critics,
Pigeon Tunnel will be a terrific resource. He confirms Bill Haydon in Tinker Tailor is largely inspired by Philby, which everybody always largely assumed. However, it deepens our understanding of the morality of his novels and worldview. Terms like le Carre-esque have been used to suggest a moral equivalence between the NATO-West and the Soviets, but that now seems like an inaccurate, or at least incomplete assessment of his ideology.

He remains blisteringly critical of his former employers at MI5 and MI6, but that is understandable, considering he lived through the Anthony Blunt, Kim Philby, and Guy Burgess debacles. However, he openly expresses anger and contempt for Philby, for his betrayal, even at his advanced age. It is complicated for le Carre, who acknowledges he would have been a prime candidate for Soviet recruitment. Yet, the atrocities of Stalin, whom the Cambridge spies initially served, represents a point of moral clarity for the writer, or so we can interpret from his sit-downs with Morris. He was similarly appalled by the Berlin Wall.

Morris incorporates extensive film clips into
Pigeon Wall to illustrate le Carre’s novels, but Sir Alec Guiness is his only George Smiley (so, no Gary Oldman). Sadly, we do not hear any of Quincy Jones’ score for A Deadly Affair, but the soundtrack composed by Philip Glass and Paul Leonard-Morgan is more compatible with Morris’s aesthetics.

Despite Morris’s symbolic interludes,
Pigeon Tunnel feels like a definitive cinematic statement on the man and his career. The director, employing his trademark “interrotron” (which allows his subjects to maintain eye-contact with both Morris and his camera) prompts insightful responses from le Carre that almost feel confessional at times. The doc also captures the tone and flavor of his writing so well, it will spur some viewers to revisit le Carre’s books and films. Highly recommended for fans of le Carre and Morris, The Pigeon Tunnel starts streaming tomorrow (10/20) on Apple TV+ and simultaneously opens in select theaters.