A seeming run-of-the-mill con artist steals from you with a clever ruse or when you look the other way. The top-notch con artist can look you in the eye, explain he is about to deceive you, and then get away with it anyway. After watching Errol Morris’ sleekly enrapturing John le Carré documentary The Pigeon Tunnel, you cannot help but think what a clever truth-telling chap the film’s subject is, with all his talk about the fungibility of truth and the art of deception – and forget he might be pinching your wallet at that moment.
The late David Cornwell (le Carré is his pen name), who died in 2020, spends much of The Pigeon Tunnel downplaying the importance or factual nature of what he has written. Certainly, his novels about the hazy morality, grey bureaucracy, and the cold cruelty of espionage often drew from real life. Cornwell tells Morris how his breakthrough 1963 novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was born from his anger at what he witnessed after being posted to Germany as an MI6 operative as the Berlin Wall was being constructed. Morris plays a clip from the 1965 film adaptation in which Richard Burton delivers the novel’s key soliloquy to his character’s girlfriend:
What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not! They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and indians to brighten their rotten little lives.
It’s hard to imagine those lines of roaring, yowling disgust at the vile mess humanity has made of the world spitting from the pen of Cornwell. Like most of the men Morris films for his documentaries on the intersection of power, politics, warfare, and hubris (The Fog of War, The Unknown Known, American Dharma), Cornwell is a controlled and conniving presence working assiduously to present a particular image. Unlike those figures (Robert McNamara, Donald Rumsfeld, Steve Bannon, respectively), who cast their kind of reality-bending forcefield, Cornwell is fully upfront about his machinations. “This is a performance art,” he says, leaving just enough uncertainty about whether he means just the interview with Morris, his writing, or his entire life.
The version of Cornwell he imparts in The Pigeon Tunnel is a wily and seductive figure, spinning out paragraphs of world-weary prose dialogue with a cool and semi-humored remove in response to Morris’s questions barked at him from off-screen. Reticent in the British way and yet cuttingly open, or so it would seem, he spins a tale of his life as a series of betrayals: familial, institutional, political, and perhaps even spiritual. Raised by a rakish and frequently imprisoned confidence artist who blew through windfalls of money as quickly as he did wives and mistresses, Cornwell describes himself as an imposter from the start.
A lower-class boy who learned in boarding school how to imitate the mores of the upper class, Cornwell used those skills to gain entrée to Oxford, Eton, and then finally the ultimate sinecure for charming and well-mannered lads with something to lose and to prove: Her Majesty’s intelligence services. After dispiriting stints in MI5 and MI6, Cornwell turned those experiences into a different kind of confidence game: writing.
At this point, many writers might want to show how they were telling the truth with their art. It would make sense for Cornwell. After all, the explosive success of le Carré’s novels in the 1960s and ‘70s, especially the Smiley novels like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, were seen by the reading public and many intelligence operatives as a realistic counterpoint to Ian Fleming’s silly James Bond fantasies. But Cornwell somewhat punctures the idea of himself as the truth-telling spy novelist. He self-deprecatingly describes himself as only a one-time “ineffective” employee of the secret services who now lives inside a “bubble” of his own imagination, creating “credible fables” out of what he has witnessed.
Cornwell’s long yet crisply delivered curlicue narratives spin further from his life and art to encompass larger issues. But whether discussing the nature of espionage, the Cold War struggle of ideologies, the shabby incompetence of spy agencies, or whether there is a true center to any person (he doubts it, based on what he has seen), he keeps circling back to how artifice, trickery, and unreliable memories color human experience. Then again, that may just be what he wants to convey.
A veteran interrogator who honed his craft questioning English civil servants to assess whether they were Soviet assets, he answers every question with a specific yet unstated purpose and the ever-present suggestion that all this may be an act. Or it might be the sincerest interview you have ever seen.
Those split impulses, akin to what he calls the “self-imposed schizophrenia” of spies like himself, are most painfully revealed in an anecdote he relates from the ’50s. Assigned to report on Communist students at Oxford, Cornwell insinuated himself into the group and befriended their leader. Years later, the leader figured out who had betrayed him to MI5 and confronted Cornwell, demanding to know why. Cornwell replied that ugly as it was, the betrayal needed to happen because the students were essentially working for the Soviet Union, which was at the time in a state of war with the United Kingdom. Simple as that. When Morris asks whether he is certain he did the right thing, Cornwell responds wryly, “Of course not.”
The sadness in his smile says everything most of us would rather not know.