THE PIGEON TUNNEL (2023)
Release Date: 08/20/23 [Apple TV+]
Studio: Apple Original Films.
"Spans six decades as le Carré gives his final and most personal interview, interrupted with rare archival footage and dramatic anecdotes. It is set against the stormy Cold War backdrop that extends into the present day."
OUR DOCUMENTARY REVIEW:
John le Carré’s autobiography, "The Pigeon Tunnel" (2016), reads more like a collection of short stories than a chronological memoir. Errol Morris chooses a similar path for his le Carré documentary of the same name. The narrative style is dismissed as Morris and his subject, John le Carré (the pen name for author and – perhaps – real-life spy David Cornwell), interview each other. Filmed before Cornwell’s death in 2020, le Carré is captured as being spry, intelligent, and engaging. Throughout the Apple TV+ event, though, the talk of Cold War dissidents repeatedly falls down one too many rabbit holes.
Or pigeon tunnels.
In a room appropriately outfitted with mirrors, filmmaker Errol Morris (Fog of War) speaks with le Carré on the heavy themes of betrayal. Both the personal type, specifically regarding his conman father, Ronnie, and absent mother, Olive. And also professional, as le Carré reflects on Kim Philby, the infamous Russian mole in British intelligence, as well as the spying he performed on Communist classmates at Oxford.
Morris fills in their conversation through staged reenactments, archival footage of a younger David Cornwell, and with enough slo-mo flying pigeon montages one could easily think that John Woo had a hand with the editing. In between, Morris tees up foundational moments of le Carré’s childhood alongside produced cinematic scenes, particularly from the masterful The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (Martin Ritt, 1965). Some are cunningly spot on; others drop rather heavy-handed.
The Pigeon Tunnel, the movie, deflects both personal life introspection and also of his cinematic successes. Those perhaps expecting keen insight on Tom Hiddleston’s The Night Manager or Colin Firth in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy might find themselves nodding off while listening to le Carré’s soothing, British accent. But while listening nonetheless, realization kicks in that le Carré’s led an extraordinary life. He was active - both with the Secret Service and then as an author - in a particularly interesting period of 20th century life. This retrospective gives him much to say, even when guilefully terse. Yet, really, speculative conversation aside, not much is truly said.
Le Carré ruminates and quips and he keeps a stiff upper lip. He speaks of agents and the fight against Communism and provides glimpses of spycraft from an era that, oddly, seems terribly long ago. Le Carré is a master storyteller who led a shadowy life and seems to hold onto many secrets still. Ironically, such secrets tend not to be all that revealing, as le Carré tells the story of German officer Rudolph Hess’s hidden… trousers.
Errol Morris presents a fine conversation with a unique individual. Through it all, the showing is awfully British; like with a kind smile and warm cuppa tea. In The Pigeon Tunnel, le Carré pointedly admits that the Secret Service was most definitely not the stuff of James Bond. But for a presentation promoted as an exposé, Morris needed to shake things up. Like a good martini. And not the wings of a pigeon.