Friday 20 October 2023

Spy vs. spy: "The Pigeon Tunnel"

Given how rapidly we descended from
Barbenheimer (the movies are back!) to The Nun 2, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3 and Expendables 4 (take them away again; we're done here), the return of not one but two American masters to our screens this weekend offers much-needed cause for cheer. Errol Morris might be considered the Scorsese of cinematic non-fiction: another garrulous New Yorker with a recognisable set of stylistic tics, he too has appeared to interrogate history and the human condition with even greater vigour entering his dotage, searching for illumination even as the light dims. If Morris's documentaries have become a little more sedentary with time - more dependent on the extended sit-down interview that was an essential part of this filmmaker's practice from the off - they've also come to benefit from the enhanced insight and wisdom that follows from keeping your eyes open and camera rolling for the better part of five decades. The Pigeon Tunnel is the Morris version of a celebrity exclusive: the sit-down and chinwag here was with John Le Carré (born David Cornwell, 1931), not long before the author's passing in December 2020. On paper, these are two very different men: the gabby American and the reticent, quietly aristocratic Brit. Yet the film reveals Morris and Cornwell as closely matched minds, perhaps even kindred spirits, set as they are to pondering a shared set of interests: subterfuge and yarnspinning, the slipperiness of truth, how the world really works, and the stories we tell to keep ourselves warm on long cold winter nights. In his writing, Cornwell positioned himself against the fantasy and glamour of Ian Fleming's 007 books. Morris has been doing something similar in his own line of work, trying to keep his colleagues - and, who knows, perhaps even mankind entire - honest.

He has fun with the framing, though, as he generally does. We're watching two wary oldtimers - giants in their field, like Smiley and Mother - feeling one another out, in what could be either a mock-up of or Cornwell's actual study (the truth remains slippery), but could as easily be a park bench in a country behind the Iron Curtain. That mysterious title gets explained away early on, as at once the working title for most of Le Carré's books, the actual title of his 2016 memoir, and a working metaphor for entrapment, how the powers-that-be ensure the outcomes they want. Seasoned peepers both, interviewer and interviewee take turns putting the other in their crosshairs. Comrade Morris arrives at this assignation aware that the author is carrying round not just his own secrets, but also those of his family: a serial conman father who lined up his moneyed son as a potential mark, a mother who saw through the imposture and went on the run herself. Cornwell cites the Graham Greene observation that childhood is the writer's credit account; Morris connects it to his subject's time in the intelligence community. According to Cornwell, institutions like MI5 prey on those "separated from the nest" - individuals who may respond best to close supervision, willing to gather and pass on information as a show of affection ("Now do you love me?") to handlers who assume the place of absent parents. There was a reason Mother was called Mother. Although he's one of those authors willing to entertain and engage with outside readings of his work, the Cornwell filmed here still seems capable of deflection or deception; he's a worthy adversary for any documentarist. We hear a lifetime's worth of stories about others, blessed with writerly turns of phrase: of Kim Philby, Cornwell notes "if you gave him a cat to look after for a couple of weeks, he'd betray the cat". Yet he's far more cautious around himself (or his selves); right until his final days, the old intelligence training held sway.

Which is not to underplay or undersell Morris's own achievements here. In some respects, The Pigeon Tunnel is nothing this filmmaker hasn't been doing for the past fifty years: listening, considering, posing the odd probing or leading question. Yet Morris keeps digging beneath Cornwell's well-rehearsed supper-club anecdotes; he seems re-energised by the opportunity to tape not just a great writer's last will and testament, but also his final confessions. (It makes sense that a career that began with 1978's Gates of Heaven should eventually point towards Morris effectively playing Saint Peter.) If external circumstances mean this is no ordinary celebrity interview, the form remains broadly straightforward: the kind of talking-head arrangement that has been a documentary stock-in-trade since the introduction of sound. Morris's real work - the real digging - comes, you sense, after the interviews and handshakes have been concluded; it lies in locating the double and triple meanings in his subject's words, and in pointing those up for the onlooker with the help of resonant images. This involves the usual, supremely skilful repurposing of archival elements: Cornwell family photos that inspire their own interpretations and counterinterpretations, clips of Le Carré adaptations for film and television, suggestive shots of Morris's own invention and making. (What's with the room filled with eggshells - or are they crushed skulls?) Nothing, however, may be as significant here as a close-up of a single sliver of text that reads "at a certain age, you want the answer" - the line that connects Smiley to Le Carré and Cornwell to his interrogator. Morris, siding with truth, demonstrates no great desire to dress this project and encounter up as anything other than what it is: two men who've had cause to consider the psychology of men sitting in a darkened room talking about why people do what they do, and leaving us to infer why the world turns as it does. Over ninety minutes, and to a score that cribs as freely from Mission: Impossible as it does from Morris regular Philip Glass, The Pigeon Tunnel argues that might just remain the most thrilling, rewarding and necessary pursuit there is.

The Pigeon Tunnel opens in selected cinemas, and is available to stream via Apple TV+, from today.

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