Errol Morris believes in truth – “in objective truth,” he said in an interview during September’s Toronto International Film Festival. “But like Pascal, I imagine the truth is a quest. The truth is not given to us. It’s hidden from us, and we pursue it.”
Since 1978, Morris, 75, has pursued truth through the documentaries he directs, including The Thin Blue Line (1988), which made him an art house star, and The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, which won him an Oscar in 2003. Lately, his films have taken the form of in-depth conversations with people who are professionally slippery about the truth, including Donald Rumsfeld, the former U.S. secretary of defence, and Steve Bannon, the MAGA political strategist. Any one could be subtitled, What’s Really Going on Here?
Morris’s most recent subject fits right in: John le Carré, born David Cornwell. Before he became one of the world’s most-read spy novelists, Cornwell was a teacher at Eton and then a spy himself. His mother took off when he was 5; his father, Ronald, was a con man who saw people as either dupes or string-pullers. Cornwell tells Morris he decided to be the latter; he learned to pass as an elite and “to perform love even when feeling hatred.” As a spy, Cornwell felt what he called “the joy of the duality” – playing one person against another made him the centre of the Earth. In novels, he found “a home for my larceny.”
In other words, Cornwell is a master of truth disguised as fiction and vice versa, a veritable onion of honesty and obfuscation that Morris delights in peeling. He filmed Cornwell for 20-plus hours over four days. The resulting documentary, The Pigeon Tunnel, arrives on AppleTV+ Oct. 20.
“I loved it,” Morris says. “He’s one of the most eloquent people I’ve ever spoken to. His love of and gift for language. His deep perversity about so many things. His musician’s ear for accents, dialect, dialogue. Extraordinary man.”
I could say the same about Morris. In our 20 minutes together, he references in the most natural way not just Blaise Pascal but also Goethe’s Faust, Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, the philosophers Immanuel Kant and Saul Kripke, and the Japanese classic Rashomon. (In Rashomon, three different people tell their version of the same story. Morris once wrote an essay about it, “The Rashomon of Rashomon.” He tells me Kripke’s theory of the film: “They’re all lying.”)
Morris interviews his subjects through the Interrotron, a rig he invented that makes his face appear in his camera’s lens, allowing his subjects to speak directly into it. (“I should have patented it,” he says.) For our interview, we were in a room together, human to human. But a junket company was running the show, so we were overseen by faces on a laptop on a stand, which added an Orwellian aspect that felt fitting.
In The Pigeon Tunnel, Cornwell proposes some alarming truths to Morris: History is chaos. There’s no great secret to human behaviour. We hardly know ourselves because we all lie and fake so much. And at the end of our search for meaning, for truth, for understanding, we realize that the inmost room – the inmost room! – is bare.
“For me it’s an existential story,” Morris says. “It’s about how at rock bottom, we may never know who we are. Even David Cornwell. When you peel an onion and keep going until there are no layers left, the question is posed that maybe we’re just a heap of scraps.”
Here I must mention that Morris, a big, affable guy with closely shorn hair and a voice that revs with curiosity, is having an existential crisis of his own. At home in Cambridge, Mass., he reads three newspapers a day, and just before our interview, he learned that the U.S. House of Representatives would pursue impeaching president Joe Biden for – well, no one knows.
“It’s hard to be an American today and not be in despair,” Morris says. “I’m appalled, to tell you the truth. The news is all, Trump this, Trump that, Trump everything. Polls about how many people believe him. It makes you think that truth is an opinion poll, which of course it is not.
“Then people who’ve seen The Pigeon Tunnel say to me, ‘Look, even Le Carré believes truth is subjective.’ Clearly they haven’t listened to what he actually says, which is, ‘Yes, people have their own subjective views of what may have transpired. But there is an objective truth. Maybe we can’t know it. But it exists! There is a fact of the matter. Two plus two does equal four.’”
Was Morris drawn to Cornwell because Morris hungered for that idea of objective truth, however many layers of fog may obscure it? Does he use his films to beat back his own despair?
“Maybe I do,” he replies. “The most despairing line I’ve ever heard was from Robert S. McNamara at the end of Fog of War. It’s never remarked on, but it’s a line I think about often: ‘Reason won’t save us. Rationality will not save us.’ For a man like McNamara, who devoted his entire life to reason, it’s horrifying. History may be just who we are, a collection of madmen.” He smiles sadly at me. “I’m sorry,” he says.
At that moment, I kid you not, a voice from the Big Brother laptop calls out, “Last question.”
The Pigeon Tunnel is also the title of le Carré’s 2016 memoir, a series of short stories. It refers to a scene he witnessed as a young teenager, when his father took him to a casino in Monte Carlo where pigeons were bred on the roof. When patrons wanted to shoot them for sport, the birds were released through a dark tunnel, emerging into a spray of bullets. Those that survived returned to their roof, doomed to repeat the cycle. The Pigeon Tunnel was the working title of nearly every le Carré novel until he thought of something better. In his film, Morris gently prods Cornwell as to why the image haunts him. But the answer remains elusive.
So for my last question, I ask, “Did you ever think Cornwell was duping you?”
“No,” Morris replies. “I think we share a kind of compulsion, no matter what, to continue working. It’s kind of a deep need. It’s who I am. It’s how I figure out who I am, how I express myself, how you become something rather than nothing.”
Morris’s quest is the truth. Anyway, I believed him.
Editor’s note: Editor's note: An earlier version of this story contained incorrect information about Cornwell's date of death. This version has been updated.
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