Documentary THE PIGEON TUNNEL Tells the Story of Spy Fiction Author John le Carré – in His Own Words

The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.

Now streaming on AppleTV, The Pigeon Tunnel is a new biographical documentary of David Cornwell, more famously known by his pen name John le Carré.

A celebrated author, Le Carré worked for the British Secret Service in the 1950s and 1960s before going on to write numerous famous novels, mostly in the spy genre. Anyone unfamiliar with the writer has doubtlessly still heard, at least, of the many adaptations of his works, which include The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Tailor of Panama, The Perfect Spy, and The Constant Gardener.

I include myself among that number; for when I pressed ‘Play’ I didn’t really know much about the man or his work. Even so, the documentary is a fascinating study, traversing the realms of both history and literature (and, to a lesser extent, film). The film takes its title from the author’s own 2016 autobiographical work The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life, and the analogy behind that title – and why it’s rattled in the author’s head for many decades – sets a fascinating stage.

Le Carré passed away in 2020, making this posthumously-released interview feel like something of a final statement if you have that knowledge in mind (the film itself maintains the illusion of a living conversation).

The film introduces its subject matter before diving into it, and even being mostly unfamiliar with the man, I found it was satisfactorily explanatory and engaging. Its narrative is relayed in an interview format, which is to say that you hear le Carré’s story told in his own words. On learning about le Carré’s life, I though it a noteworthy comparison that he experienced a similar arc to other British personages of the era, like Roald Dahl, Ian Fleming, and Christopher Lee, who drew directly from their careers in Intelligence and military service to foster their creative outputs in literature and film.

Le Carré recounts his unorthodox and motherless childhood, which shaped his person. As the son of a career con artist, Ronnie Cornwell, le Carré experienced two educations: the street-level scheming of his father, and the formal schooling at upper crust academies into which his father secured his enrollment, by hook or by crook.

These conditions fostered an outsider mentality and a knack for deceit, elements which helped him secure employment as an agent for both MI5 and MI6 in a tumultuous era, creating a foundation for his written works. Le Carré’s experiences naturally influenced his novels, and unlike the pulpy adventures of Ian Fleming, his works, and the characters that populated them, were unglamorous, unheroic, morally ambiguous, and it was this voice which differentiated his stories.

Having little knowledge of le Carré’s life or works, the film was to me a learning experience; perhaps those more familiar might have different feelings or stronger opinions. I’m not sure that I have much of an opinion on the film for film’s sake, but as an education I found the subject matter both engaging and worthwhile.

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