Exploring the Complexities and Contradictions in Errol Morris’ The Pigeon Tunnel

Oscar-winning filmmaker Errol Morris recently premiered his highly anticipated documentary, The Pigeon Tunnel, at the Telluride Film Festival. The film centers around the life and work of David Cornwell, also known as John le Carré, a former spy turned novelist. The audience response was overwhelmingly positive, with many considering it to be one of Morris’s best works to date. However, amidst the celebration, Morris revealed that his plans to create a documentary on former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had fallen through. This revelation left fans disappointed, as they were eager to see Morris tackle the complexities of Kissinger’s legacy.

A Missed Opportunity

Henry Kissinger, a controversial figure who played a pivotal role in shaping American foreign policy during the Nixon and Ford administrations, recently turned a hundred years old. Morris had hoped to interview him for a documentary, but Kissinger ultimately declined. The filmmaker expressed his surprise and disappointment during a Q&A session, revealing that he had spoken with Kissinger on the phone for over an hour prior to the planned interview. Morris believed he had been respectful and was taken aback by Kissinger’s reluctance. The missed opportunity was disheartening for Morris, as he had proven his ability to delve into the psyche of influential figures in previous documentaries such as The Fog of War and The Unknown Known.

During the Q&A, Morris touched upon the concept of a cyclical view of history, a perspective embraced by figures like Kissinger and Stephen K. Bannon. This perspective suggests that external forces guide human events towards predetermined outcomes, thus absolving individuals of responsibility for their actions. Morris, in contrast, presented David Cornwell as an example of someone who confronted the contradictions and moral dilemmas of his time. Cornwell, who had served in Britain’s intelligence services before becoming a renowned novelist, experienced disillusionment when he discovered former Nazis occupying prominent positions in Germany after World War II. This revelation challenged his perception of the Cold War conflict between East and West, leading him to question the construction of the enemy by both sides.

In The Pigeon Tunnel, based on Cornwell’s memoir, he expresses deep condemnation for Kim Philby, a British intelligence officer turned Soviet spy. Philby, one of the members of the notorious Cambridge Five spy ring, remained loyal to the Soviet Union long after the revelations of Stalin’s atrocities. Cornwell’s criticism goes beyond ideological differences; he accuses Philby of embracing deceit and double-dealing, prioritizing his own position in world history over any sense of moral obligation. Morris found this perspective distressing yet intriguing, as it revealed Cornwell’s belief in the existence of right and wrong, good and evil. Cornwell’s sense of loyalty and commitment to certain ideals guided his actions, even in the face of disillusionment.

A Filmmaker’s Journey

Throughout the making of The Pigeon Tunnel, Morris faced various challenges and uncertainties. However, he was supported by Cornwell’s two sons, Simon and Stephen, who also served as producers on the film. While David Cornwell never had the chance to see the finished documentary before his passing in 2020, his sons believed that he would have appreciated it. They revealed that their father had long been fascinated by Morris’s work and considered The Fog of War as one of the films that shaped his understanding of truth, history, and reflection. The collaboration between Morris and the Cornwell family brought together a mix of wariness, curiosity, and mutual respect.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the documentary’s production was the dynamic between Morris and Cornwell. As they prepared for the interview sessions at an English estate, they found themselves in a metaphorical no man’s land. Morris recalls the moment when they met to size each other up, akin to a Cold War exchange. Cornwell, having interrogated others before, took on the role of the interrogator himself, challenging Morris with the question, “Errol, who are you?” This interaction set the stage for a profound exploration of Cornwell’s life and experiences, as Morris discovered a man who, like himself, was unafraid to ask difficult questions and confront uncomfortable truths.

The Pigeon Tunnel offers audiences a glimpse into the complexities and contradictions of David Cornwell’s life and the world in which he operated. It showcases Errol Morris’s ability to navigate challenging subject matter and shine a light on the human experience. While the missed opportunity to interview Henry Kissinger was disappointing, Morris’s latest documentary remains a testament to his unique storytelling prowess and his commitment to uncovering the untold stories that shape our understanding of history and ourselves.

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