“It’s an examination of untruth, and he is our guide”: Errol Morris on John le Carré and The Pigeon Tunnel

Errol Morris’s latest film delves into the enigmas in the life of spy writer John le Carré, but – as the master documentary-maker explains – The Pigeon Tunnel isn’t about establishing the facts.

John le Carré in The Pigeon Tunnel (2023)

In The Pigeon Tunnel, director Errol Morris interviews novelist John le Carré about his life and work. Le Carré, whose bestselling spy novels include The Spy Who Came In from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, is a fascinating interviewee. Having been born David Cornwell, the son of fraudster Ronnie Cornwell, he taught at Eton before embarking on a career in the British secret service – joining MI5 in 1958 before transferring to MI6 two years later.

In the film – named for le Carré’s 2016 memoir – Morris meticulously tackles the truths, half-truths and lies of an incredible life with the vigour that informs his greatest works, such as The Thin Blue Line (1988) and The Fog of War (2003). The former focused on the trial and conviction of Randall Dale Adams for the shooting of Dallas police officer Robert W. Wood in 1976 and helped overturn Adams’ conviction, while the latter illuminated the controversial life and work of US defense secretary Robert McNamara.

Justly considered one of the great documentarians, Morris took umbrage at being asked different versions of the question “How much do you think of what le Carré told you was true?” when discussing The Pigeon Tunnel ahead of its European premiere at BFI London Film Festival this October. But he was willing to probe and parry, carefully considering and debating his fascinating film as an interviewee in much the same way he conducts interviews on screen.

From the start of the film, there’s a definite impression that you knew le Carré. Did that rapport take a while to build? You get the feeling you’ve got his confidence very early on.

This wasn’t our first meeting, certainly. I had met him at his house in Hampstead. But there wasn’t a long connection between the two of us. We had mutual friends. I’m friendly with Seymour Hersh, an American journalist, and so was David. At some point Hersh and David spoke, and Hersh may have recommended that David speak with me. Two of his children were interested in making this happen, and they facilitated this interview in many different ways. Apple was willing to pay for it, which is another very important piece of that puzzle.

Did your line of questioning and your approach differ to any of your other subjects?

No. The only difference might be that David is clearly obsessed with philosophical questions that interest him and interested me. “How is he lying to me? Is he telling me the absolute truth about his father?” He says so often in the interview itself that he doesn’t even know where the truth lies anymore, which is the honest answer. We tell ourselves so many stories about the world, about ourselves, about other people, that invariably we lose track of what’s real and what’s imaginary. 

What gets my back up is that somehow, ultimately, [people see this as] a contest about ascertaining the truth. It’s an examination of untruth, and he is our guide.

Some of his anecdotes in the film are soon disproved.

I love the story about his father in prison. They go to visit his father in prison. We film the scene [reenacting the visit]. He imagines his father is the Monopoly man waving to him. And then he tells us that he’s been assured that that could never have happened, because there’s no window facing any street where he could have been standing and waving. I would say he’s a crazy epistemologist. He undermines our understanding of what’s out there in the world. Maybe it’s putting too fine a point on things. That truth is never given over on a silver salver, like, “Here is the truth.”

In The Thin Blue Line the truth is central. There’s a great Philip K. Dick line that I like, [paraphrasing] “Reality is what remains when you cease to believe in it.” And the truth was it’s the centre of that movie. Who shot the cop? Did the kids shoot the cop? Did the drifter shoot the cop? There’s a fact of the matter. There’s a world out there in which things happen. In The Pigeon Tunnel, it’s a different kind of story. It is a story of what makes the world tick, what makes the world work?

John Le Carré (David Cornwell) and Errol MorrisApple TV+

What interested you about le Carré, aside from what he did for a living?

I’m moved by his struggle – his struggles with history, his struggle with his personal biography, his struggle with writing. He is clearly animated by that question he asked me, “Who are you?” Who’s he? He answers it at the end of the movie. It’s not really an answer, but it is an end of the movie. “I’m an artist.” But think of these stories that he’s telling you along the way. Those are very powerful stories for me. 

I’ve always been fascinated by the story of [Nazi politician] Rudolf Hess and his flight from Germany to Scotland. It is one of the great mysteries of history. What was Hess trying to achieve? Did he really think he was going to make peace with the British government? What was going on? Was Hess just mad? Was he batshit crazy? Was there rhyme and reason to what he was doing? Here’s what’s really fascinating to me – le Carré, in telling this story, goes back to this lockbox, or the innermost room, or the secret place where the rules of history are revealed.

He tells us that we get to that innermost room. First of all, the safe is empty, like his innermost room and his story in [his 1990 novel] The Secret Pilgrim. And then, they find a pair of pants hidden behind the safe, with a note attached to it, which turns this whole historical investigation into some grim joke. Maybe because of the impossibility of ever knowing why Hess flew to Scotland. Maybe because it’s such a question, and its answer is lost to history. To say that truth is objective does not mean we can always find it.

History decays in front of our very eyes. Evidence is lost, adulterated, changed. And it’s a strange story about the corruptibility of evidence, of consciousness, of memory. So you should ask questions about that, because it’s not about David ever guaranteeing that he’s saying the truth or that I would ever think such a thing.

Why do you think he wouldn’t talk about his romantic life?

You should ask him. He’s dead. I’m going to be difficult. But, why not ask him? I didn’t care about it. I didn’t ask it. So, he fucked some people. Big deal. People would say to me, well, “He betrayed his family. Blah blah blah. This is a movie about betrayal.” I don’t think it’s a movie about betrayal, and I don’t know where that all came from, except that people want to read a generic story into this, that “He’s a spy. Spies lie. He must have lied to you. How do you feel about him lying to you?” 

But what he does say about spying is interesting. I was [once] a private detective: was I lying to people? Of course I was lying to people. The Thin Blue Line is me lying to a lot of Dallas police officers, in order to get information about the case. You can very well lie in service of trying to find the truth. It’s not even ironic. 

In the interview you did with the New York Times the reporter referenced the Jean-Luc Godard quote about cinema being truth 24 frames per second and you said, “It’s lies at 24 frames a second.” Do you believe that?

Well, of course I do. Just think for a second. You’re not hearing the truth. Truth is a quest. David was interested in this philosopher [Leszek] Kołakowski who wrote unendingly about [Blaise] Pascal. It’s – take my word for it – extremely hard to read. But Pascal is an interesting figure, because for Pascal, God was a quest, linked with so many different probabilistic factors. But, truth for me is something that you pursue. Someone will tell you something, maybe they’ll say something that is true. Most likely it won’t be true. At the very beginning of the movie, David tells us about interrogations versus interviews. Now, I’ve thought a lot about this – because of all these interviews [to promote the film], I’m thinking of writing a book on interviews.

He says that they’re one and the same. Of course, they’re not. It’s very different for me to do an interview and an interrogation by the cops or by the secret service. There’s an agenda. I like to think, and I may be the real delusional one here, that there is no agenda in an interview. An interview is just trying to establish a kind of give and take, where you learn something about another person, but you don’t even know what you’re going to learn and how it’s going to unfold.

The Pigeon Tunnel (2023)Apple TV+

We’ve been in the soundbite age for 40 or 50 years. What power does the documentary form have now?

I don’t know what power anything has anymore because the internet has been this tsunami of material, mostly false material, where truth, whatever it might be, is just overwhelmed by a tsunami of lies and misrepresentation. I think the most powerful part of The Pigeon Tunnel is when I ask about the inmost room; I ask him, “Is this about personality?” In my mind, I kept thinking of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt peeling the onion and being left with nothing when he tries to examine the nature of man.

For David, it was something different: that history was chaotic, that there was no rhyme and reason to history. It goes back to his love of Goethe’s Faust. Faust saying that he knows everything, but he doesn’t know how anything really works. Who pulls the strings? What pulls the strings? What’s the organising principle behind the world around him? And David’s rueful conclusion is the innermost room, that room where it all happens? There’s nothing there. And, I say to him, “Do you mean history is chaos?” And he says, “Yes. History is chaos.”

He is telling us in the beginning, you’re in this lie detection mode. Maybe it’s different – a chaos detection mode. My country is on the verge of devolving into some insane chaos. It’s pretty frightening, actually. And it should be frightening to all of us. The world is just rife with conspiracy theories, everywhere. Conspiracies about elections, conspiracies about vaccines, conspiracies about this, conspiracies about that. Everybody wants a conspiracy, or a group of conspiracies or a world filled with them. The ugly reality is that there may be no such thing. 

Years ago, I demonstrated against the war in Vietnam. That seemed like the worst, when the US government was just slaughtering people in south-east Asia and it didn’t seem as though anybody could do anything about it. [Now] there’s just human batshit craziness and people at cross purposes with each other, people not knowing what they’re doing, endless mistakes. I have to say that I’m more scared about the world than I’ve ever been.

I’m sorry you feel that way.

It’s not that I just feel that way. The world does seem deeply out of control. Can anybody do anything about it? You make what you make hoping that people will listen and then it will have some effect on the world and some ability to change things. 

I was lucky with The Thin Blue Line, incredibly lucky that I had a story where truth, real truth, objective truth was at its heart, and that through investigation I could overturn a conviction for capital murder and lead to the release of a man from prison. You don’t get to do that every day, and it’s something that I’m immensely proud of. 

What are you working on next? 

I have another movie that I’ve just finished. The picture editing is really done. We’re just finalising music and sound effects, and that should be out early next year. But it’s a film about the separation of families – including parents and children – on the Mexico-US border by the Trump administration. I’ve made a movie about that called Separated. 

The Pigeon Tunnel is in cinemas from 20 October. It had its European premiere at the 67th BFI London Film Festival.

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