The Pigeon Tunnel

The Pigeon Tunnel (dir. Errol Morris)

By: Adam Freed

In his acclaimed Cold War era novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, international best selling author John le Carre (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) writes, “Intelligence work has one moral law - it is justified by results,”  this lack of morality is the centralized theme of Errol Morris’ Apple TV+ documentary exploration of le Carre’s extraordinary life story.  The Pigeon Tunnel is the tale of a man who transitioned the global view of spycraft away from the glitz and glam of the Bond era into a downtrodden cloak and dagger world of longing.  John le Carre (1931-2020), uses his union with the famed documentarian to lay bare his soul and confess that his pronounced knowledge of the intelligence community is informed by the fact that he had in fact been a British spy during the Cold War, including being positioned in Berlin during the 1961 construction of the infamous Berlin Wall.

David Cornwall, le Carre’s birth name, unfolds for Errol Morris a six decade journey including his rather difficult relationship with his father, a con man who ends up serving multiple years over various terms in English prison.  It is from his father that le Carre learns to avoid trusting anyone.  A heartbreaking realization, but a necessity when raised by an unreliable adult.  Through the process of watching his father con people for years, le Carre ascertains the delicate art of deception, and his perception of morality is forever stained. John le Carre’s immense academic promise leads him to Oxford, where he is very quickly targeted by British intelligence as a gifted asset to the anti-communist agenda for queen and country.  

Errol Morris relies on a series of impactful recreations to provide a visually narrative layer to le Carre’s incredible journey.  None of these recreations are more memorable than that of le Carre’s father, Ronnie Cornwall, shooting sporting pigeons from a small patch of grass adjacent to a Monaco casino.  The target birds are trapped atop the casino’s roof and can only seek freedom through a tunnel leading them into the path of the waiting gunman.  The targets who live will only return to the same horrors the following day, until one shotgun-toting casino patron will eventually put an end to their perpetual cycle of misery.  The film’s titular metaphor, highlights the horrific quality of life for British agents during the Cold War era.  Awakening to behold a predictable and identical misery becomes le Carre’s life story, one that he painfully shares with the inquisitive Morris.  Like the literary works of John le Carre, The Pigeon Tunnel dispenses with all romantic considerations of intelligence work.  The cold realities of a life lived in deception of anyone and everyone to whom the word love could ever be applied, is the sobering truth at the heart of the matter.  David Cornwall aka John le Carre now rests for eternity, a lifetime of novels and one intriguing documentary to survive him in perpetuity.  The morality with which he lived, can only be justified as the late author states, “by the results,” in which case, le Carre’s was a life well lived. 

Target Score: 7/10 - Acclaimed documentarian Errol Morris teams with Apple TV+ to weave the stranger than fiction life story of author John le Carre, a British intelligence officer turned universally beloved author of countless spy novels.  The heartfelt ambiguity of le Carre’s existence through the Cold War era is explored insightfully within The Pigeon Tunnel.