A former spy, literary genius, and most importantly, a masterful storyteller, David Cornwell narrated much of his life in polished literary language in his biographical documentary The Pigeon Tunnel directed by Errol Morris. The Apple documentary film is a perfect character study of David Cornwell, a spy who hid his entire past life behind a pen name: John Le Carre. Although Errol Morris’s interview style is somewhat interrogative, in The Pigeon Tunnel, we find Morris in a very friendly mood. Almost entirely behind the camera, Morris becomes an important pillar throughout the film at times. Not only do we get to know more about Cornwell’s life, his ideology, and his writings, but there is a friendly and serene chemistry between him and Morris.
The Pigeon Tunnel is cinematically enriched in every way. Centered on famous espionage novelist David Cornwell, aka John Le Carre, the film has a dark, gothic air, giving off an Edgar Allan Poe aesthetic. Pigeons flying through a tunnel and a palace full of pigeon eggs, some of which crack, are some of the extraordinary examples of cinematic elements used masterfully in this documentary, making it more than just an interrogation or interview. Cornwell sits inside a library; the camera is pointed at him from a Dutch angle, and some distortion is created, which successfully depicts the mystery surrounding this man’s life.
Cornwell didn’t have an easy childhood; he had a troubled and tortured one, with a mother who abandoned her responsibilities when he was only 5 years old and a father who was a confidence trickster. His mother’s absence and his father’s unethical background were heavy burdens for him to bear. His father, Ronald Cornwell, aka Ronnie, duped a lot of people, scamming their money; therefore, his father was never a very comfortable presence in Cornwell’s life. Overcoming the darkness of his childhood and youth, when he went to Oxford, he was recruited into the British intelligence service, MI5 and MI6. He became witness to the Berlin Wall’s erection and the early years of the Cold War. The plight of people at the time and the aftermath of the war greatly influenced his writings. Kim Philby, the most widely known mole in British intelligence, became a source of inspiration for Cornwell to write “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” In a major part of the documentary, he just spoke about Philby and theorized that his shocking disappearance from Beirut and appearance in Moscow were something of a relief for MI6.
Amid his theories and philosophical outlook on life, art, writings, and the characters he created over decades, a specific part of the documentary he dedicated to his father. In the absence of his mother, Cornwell wanted to hold on to his father, but Ronnie didn’t lead a normal life. He was living the life of a conman and served a long time in jail due to his swindling. But after Ronnie’s release, when he needed money, Cornwell refused to help him. Cornwell had always felt betrayed by his parents during his childhood, so he offered the same treatment to his father when he was in crisis. Cornwell’s character was judged because of his conflicted relationship with his father. But he never backed off from doing his part and taking responsibility. He paid for the funeral after his father lost his life, but he never visited his grave.
Throughout the documentary, Le Carre emphasized the theme of betrayal. Starting with his family and his love life, he faced betrayal many times in his life. His spy novels were sometimes heavily inspired by this idea of betrayal, and sometimes they reflected Le Carre’s deepest secrets that he tried to portray through his writing. The hardships of his life, a few years working in British intelligence, and his adventurous childhood all became a source of inspiration for him.
Cornwell had not been very open about his romantic life during this interview, as it was very private for him to discuss. However, he confirmed that he was very comfortable in this interview or interrogation. He spoke his heart out, often unfiltered and candid, though sometimes we noticed him refraining from going too deep. Morris wondered and asked about the difference between facts and fiction in his writing, as it was sometimes difficult to distinguish between the two due to the realistic approach Cornwell used in his writing. Cornwell did not like to elaborate on this, as he believed that, as an artist or writer, it was only sometimes their responsibility to explain what they were creating. Writing is almost a self-discovery for Cornwell. He loved the process of thinking, which not only develops a story or character, but sometimes he allow these characters to say a lot about the creator. He began to learn more about himself through writing. At the concluding moments of the film, he proudly identified himself as an “artist” as well as a writer, although he had never used the term before.
The Pigeon Tunnel brings out the purity of expression of David Cornwell, who has never been so transparent on camera. In a candid, mysterious, and somewhat satirical way, David talked a lot about his journey, which makes us intrigued by this story. His life was much more than offering one bestseller after another. Morris’s documentary surprises us with a distinct cinematic style. The symbolism used as a cinematic element also worked brilliantly in the film. Although we get the entire focus on Cornwell, Morris becomes an important character here, who is not seen with David in the closed room, with only his voice being heard. The entire documentary thus creates a mystical atmosphere, which is highly admirable. However, we may never see Cornwell or Le Carre so vividly in front of the camera again, as this literary genius lost his life in 2020 at the age of 89. The Pigeon Tunnel, which depicts an artistic journey of a troubled life and the creative mind of David Cornwell in a poetic tapestry, ends with a concluding scene showing some pigeons who were once freed to fly in the sky returning to their cages. Errol Morris’s masterful storytelling makes the documentary worth watching.