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‘Pigeon Tunnel’ review: Handyman, tailor, filmmaker, spy

“Betrayal fascinates me,” says David Cornwell, better known as the prolific British spy novelist who writes under the name John le Carré. Ironically, it is filmmaker Errol Morris who betrays his own investigative instincts in his documentary about Cornwell’s life, “Pigeon Tunnel.”

Oscar-winning director “Fog of War” Morris has developed a well-deserved reputation as an experienced and shrewd interviewer. You would never describe him as innocent. But still, it’s as if she allowed herself to be seduced by Cornwell. Regardless, the result is a film that, despite its flaws, is often funny and endlessly watchable – the final salute of a master storyteller.

Early in their back-and-forth, Cornwell suggests that perhaps interview is just another word for interrogation. And yet Morris never lets him back down or get lost in a disturbing thought, always in control. Because he knew his inheritance was secured? (The film’s interviews were conducted in 2020, a year before his death at 89.) Or is it his respectful approach to Morris’ speeches? Sitting in front of a camera and talking about someone’s life is an act of performance art. Cornwell says the same. Even if it is not self-aware, it is nothing and will only go so far. Morris uses all kinds of interesting imagery, including an expensive-looking room that’s empty except for eggshells covering the entire floor. There is no clear explanation for this image, but it does imply some reserve, even if Morris did not intend it to represent his own feelings.

How much of this matters? Very little! Cornwell has wonderful, exuberant eyebrows and is a first-rate raconteur, analyzing memories and hindsight. It offers fragility while carefully avoiding anything that cuts too close to the bone. Like many celebrity documentaries, it is an exercise in image management. It’s done with more intelligence and style than most.

Morris includes an old television interview that may give us some clues about this aspect of Cornwell’s self-mythologization. He says a writer is an illusionist. “And if people keep trying to look under his arm, then he’ll bust his trick.” Cornwell is determined to hold on to his trick until the end. Morris doesn’t seem curious enough to wonder what this means.

Cornwell, on the other hand, has a lot to say about his father Reggie, a womanizer and confidence trickster. “Life was a stage where everything was for show. Being off stage was boring. And risk was attractive. But what was attractive above all was the stamp of personality. To be honest, we didn’t talk. “We did not speak because we believed.”

Did you feel cheated, Morris asks?

“No, I participated. You improved your acting, learned to tell funny stories, to show off. You discover very early that a person has no center. I was not deceived, I was invited to deceive others.”

His mother abandoned them when he was five, and his childhood was a colorful but destabilizing experience. His youthful trip accompanying his father to a casino in Monte Carlo would give him the name of his memoirs and this film. The pigeons were raised on site and then passed through a tunnel to take to the skies; they were shot from the air solely for sport. The survivors would fly back the next day, unaware that they would repeat the same cycle.

Morris thinks of this as a Sisyphean metaphor for life, but it also works as another way to think about betrayal and how we can be trapped by systems we don’t understand. Capturing this was always one of Corwell’s strengths as a writer. He had a very clear understanding of how privilege can distort a person’s behavior.

But it was this upbringing (the son of a con artist) and his attempt to adopt someone else’s customs from the outside (he was educated in the most luxurious schools) that perhaps made him an ideal choice for espionage work. He burned out as a spy rather quickly by choice, and instead used those experiences in “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” and “Tinker, Tailor” to write about and genuinely criticize Britain’s intelligence services during the Cold War. , Soldier, Spy”, among others.

He glosses over how he started his writing career (did he send his drafts all over town, or did he have the right connections?) and you never get the sense that he had doubts about what he was writing or whether it could be successful in the long run. .

Also missing is anything related to his two marriages or children. It’s telling that, despite Reggie’s thoughtful ideas about who he is as a parent, Cornwell has nothing to say about what fatherhood means to him after his sons are born.

Late in the film, Morris tells him: “I hear over and over again that I didn’t press you hard enough about the betrayal.”

Who does Morris mean? I’m guessing he means the film’s producers: Cornwell’s two sons, Simon and Stephen.

“I feel like you’ve gotten the last drop of sponge on this one,” Cornwell replies. “But any question you want me to answer, I will answer it as honestly as I can.”

Morris: “They want you to break down and cry?”

David Cornwell, documentary by Errol Morris

But then Cornwell brings up a previously unmentioned topic: “I won’t talk about my sex life anymore because I don’t trust you. It seems like a pretty private matter. “My love life has been a very difficult process, as you can imagine, but it has resolved itself wonderfully and that’s enough for that.”

Here’s what he didn’t say. There were infidelities. Many, many infidelities. By the way According to Cornwell’s biographer Adam Şişman, subterfuge was “an artificial form of espionage, the thrill of adultery and the risk of exposure substituting for real operations in the field.” Codes required considerable craft, including dead letter boxes and safe houses where he could supposedly write undisturbed, but in reality places where he could take women without fear of discovery.”

“Pigeon Tunnel” is streaming on Apple TV+ (its Oct. 20 release comes one day after Cornwell’s 92nd birthday), which is fitting because the streamer is also home to a lot of it. “Slow Horses” espionage series, an obvious reference to le Carré’s novels.

Perhaps the best reason to watch “Pigeon Tunnel” is that it reminds you of what documentaries can be like when made by a real filmmaker with sophistication and passion for cinema.

Audiences were inundated with flashy, paint-by-numbers, non-fiction broadcast works that were relatively quick and cheap, bringing to life a Wikipedia page featuring the inevitable drone shots throughout. Morris has more of an artist’s eye; uses mirrors to create a fragmented image, leaving you wondering what exactly you’re looking at. This feels right. There are also “dramatized stories” featuring actors recreating different moments from Cornwell’s memories, and they play like clips from an expensive, over-the-top Masterpiece series about his life.

“God was his close friend,” he says of his father, a smile on his lips. “Whether he believed in God or not is a mystery, but he was sure that God did.” he.” What a sharp observation. Of course he became a writer.

It’s one thing to be a crafty storyteller on the page. There aren’t many writers who earn this much on the big screen. Cornwell offers this final performance as a gift to Morris, and thus to us.

“Pigeon Tunnel” — 3.5 stars (out of 4)

Where to watch: Apple TV+ (also screens Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., through Oct. 26)

Nina Metz is a Tribune critic.

nmetz@chicagotribune.com

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