The problem with Errol Morris' latest documentary is its slightness. It takes the form of an interview with the now deceased Cold War spy novelist John Le Carre. The problem is that Le Carre aka David Cornwell is a practiced liar and has no problem answering only the questions he wants to answer in exactly the way he wants to answer them. His protestations of candidness merely add to the mockery of the project. And let's be clear, David Cornwell does not actually want to reveal anything that he hasn't already revealed in interviews over the years, or indeed in his recent biography of the same title.
The problem is that this is a rather sanitised version of his story, shorn of all of his sexual misdemeanours. And this film, and the book upon which it is based, are rather a nasty revenge tactic played upon his official biographer Adam Sisman. When Sisman drafted his book, Cornwell persuaded him to leave out all of the sexual infidelity and to only publish after Cornwell's death. Cornwell then proceeded to publish his own autobiography to reclaim his narrative from Sisman, and now this film is being released precisely at the point when Sisman publishes his sex-filled follow up.
This all sounds like I don't like David Cornwell. Actually I am indifferent. I just don't trust him. I LOVE the works of John Le Carre, and the Smiley novels in particular. I even picked my Oxford college on the basis that it was his alma mater. My point is that if you already know and love the novels of John le Carre, there will be nothing new in this documentary. And if you don't already know and love the novels of John le Carre why on earth would you watch?
The story here is the one we all know. Cornwell was born in the postwar period to lower middle class parents. His mother abandoned him at 5. His father was a fraudster and bankrupt who periodically paid for Cornwell to have the upper class education he (the father) aspired to. Cornwell therefore grew up only knowing duplicity and a lack of love. He goes to Bern (not mentioned in this doc) and then to Oxford where a Fellow recruits him to spy on the other students, arranges for him to continue when his father has no money, arranges teaching jobs for him, and finally a fully-fledged but short-lived career as a spy. He drops out and writes a spy novel that is immediately wildly successful, continues in that vein, shags around, makes this film, then dies.
The stuff on Kim Philby IS interesting, though covered in other interviews. I find it fascinating that Cornwall recognises addiction to lying in Philby. Did he in himself? But of course there is a category difference. Philby was a traitor, and in Cornwell's words "evil". I just wished we had had a more nuanced discussion of Cornwell's own relationship to his spying, his lying, and his dual persona in this film.
THE PIGEON TUNNEL has a running time of 93 minutes and is rated PG-13. It played Telluride and London 2023 and will be released on Apple TV on October 20th.