“Pigeon Tunnel”: A Captivating Spy Novelist’s Portrait – Documentary Review.



Investigating the complex life of British intelligence agent David Cornwell, better known as renowned author John Le Carré, “The Pigeon Tunnel” is a captivating documentary directed by Academy-Award-winning filmmaker Errol Morris. Inspired by Le Carré’s memoir, “The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life,” the film delves into a web of evasions, half-truths, and suppositions, mirroring the style of interrogations. From its intriguing title, based on Cornwell’s habit of using it as a working title for his books, to its existential black humor in the final chapter involving the trousers of Nazi leader Rudolf Hess, this documentary is a thought-provoking and engaging experience.

Cornwell’s tumultuous relationship with his father, Ronald Cornwell, referred to by him as Ronnie, and the abandonment he faced at the tender age of five by his mother, Olive, set the stage for his continuous feeling of not belonging and his ability to lead a double life, which ultimately made him an ideal candidate for the intelligence service.

The title of the documentary draws inspiration from Cornwell’s childhood experience when his father took him to a castle in Monte Carlo where pigeons were bred. These pigeons would fly through a long, dark tunnel into the air, becoming targets for gentlemen to shoot at. The winged or escaping pigeons would return to the roof, starting the cycle anew, giving a pessimistic interpretation to the term “Sisyphean.”

While Cornwell insists that his childhood was not tragic, he quotes Graham Greene, stating that “childhood is the credit balance of a writer.” “The Pigeon Tunnel” provides fascinating insights into the inspirations behind Le Carré’s famous books. For example, the character Rick Pym in the novel “A Perfect Spy” is a representation of Cornwell’s father, who was a con man. Cornwell’s disenchantment with the Secret Service and the Cold War influenced his most famous work, “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.” His emotional response to the Berlin Wall, which he experienced firsthand while stationed in Berlin, sparked a mix of anger, disgust, and empathy. This, coupled with the seamless transition from anti-Nazism to anti-Communism and both sides inventing the enemies they needed, fueled Cornwell’s rush to find a narrative that addressed his disappointment through “blood and anger.”

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“The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” proved to be a resounding success, with Cornwell feeling that the novel had a lasting impact. As the world was saturated with James Bond, Cornwell’s world-weary character Alec Leamas served as the perfect anti-Bond, resonating deeply with readers.

Within the documentary, Cornwell discusses the motivations behind spies, describing it as “the joy of self-imposed schizophrenia,” with figures like Kim Philby being “addicted to betrayal.” Writing, for Cornwell, became a form of self-discovery, providing a space for his “larceny” to thrive.

Morris aptly describes Cornwell as an “exquisite poet of self-hatred,” while Cornwell views his life as a series of embraces and escapes. Whatever perspective one may adopt, “The Pigeon Tunnel” is an enthralling experience, enhanced by dramatic recreations, newspaper clippings, radio broadcasts, television interviews, and film clips from various adaptations of Le Carré’s works.

From “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” to “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,” featuring the brilliant Richard Burton, this documentary guarantees an engaging and gripping journey that will continue to resonate for years to come.

“The Pigeon Tunnel” is currently available for streaming on Apple TV+.



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