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Errol Morris talks about new John le Carré doc 'The Pigeon Tunnel'

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris is known for his profiles of singular and complicated figures - think Donald Rumsfeld, Robert McNamara and Steve Bannon, among others. In his latest documentary, "The Pigeon Tunnel," he continues the tradition, this time profiling David Cornwell, who's better known by his pen name John le Carre. From the very first moment of the film, it becomes clear the acclaimed British spy novelist, who was once himself a spy, is an unusual and tricky subject to profile, in part because he's so skilled at the art of the interview and trying to figure out what people are all about.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE PIGEON TUNNEL")

ERROL MORRIS: Usually I have absolutely no idea of where to begin, but you gave me an idea of where to begin.

JOHN LE CARRE: And what was that?

MORRIS: You asked me about the nature of our relationship.

LE CARRE: It went further than that, I think. It said, who are you? Because I've looked at much of your work. Sometimes you're a spectral figure, sometimes you're God and sometimes you're present.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LE CARRE: I needed to know who I was talking to. Were you my friend across the fire? Were you a stranger on a bus? Who are you?

DETROW: When I interviewed Morris about that interview, I asked him about that first exchange, and he tried to explain.

MORRIS: I would call it the le Carre cosmology or the le Carre metaphysics of string pullers and dupes. 'Cause this is the world of spies. You're either controlling others or you're controlled by others. But that's not my world. And by the end of the movie, things change so much. It's no longer about that spy world. It's about our world and how we look at ourselves.

DETROW: You know, he's John le Carre. He's also David Cornwell. And I think that it seems like more than a pen name with him. It seems to say a lot about how practiced he was at putting up that professional public facade. And I think that fact seems to hang in the air throughout the interviews, throughout the film to me. And I'm wondering, you have interviewed some tough people to talk to over the course of your career, but how hard did you have to push with him to get past some of the stock answers and some of the more elliptical answers that he was so well-versed at giving to people over the years?

MORRIS: Well, I'm making a peculiar kind of film here. The traditional biography film - whether it's of a writer or a political figure - you interview a lot of people. You ask A, B, C, D, E, F, and G what they think of your subject, and it becomes really about what people think of your subject rather than what they think of themselves. And by isolating this world to one figure and one figure alone - I did this with Robert S. McNamara; I did it with Stephen K. Bannon - you're forcing something unexpected. You're forcing your subject to reflect on who they are, rather than have someone external to them reflect on who they are.

DETROW: There's one particular moment that jumped out to me in the movie that I want to ask you about, and you talked right there about the fact that he turned history into his books. And one of his most famous books, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," is based in part about what happened with Kim Philby, this notorious traitor and spy who turned out to be a Russian agent and really betrayed the British intelligence service. He gets so angry talking to you about him. We're going to play another clip here. He's talking about how when he went to Russia in, I believe, the early 1990s or the late 1980s, he's invited to meet with Philby - if he wants to have dinner with him. And this is what he says.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE PIGEON TUNNEL")

LE CARRE: I replied, sick to the heart as I felt, that I'm soon to have dinner with our ambassador, and I can't see myself having dinner with the Queen's representative one night and dinner with the Queen's traitor the next. I just thought, there is such a thing as evil.

DETROW: That felt surprising to me, because the throughline of so many of his novels is moral ambiguity, the fact that both sides of the Cold War were deeply flawed. There's that ambivalence. Ambivalence is a term that people always use when they talk about his writing about the Cold War. And yet here he is, thinking about this person as a clear moral betrayal, as a clear right and wrong. I don't know, did that feel out of line with the way that he's written about it in his fiction to you?

MORRIS: It seems surprising. I remember thinking, here's a man far less cynical than I am, a man who really does clearly believe in good and evil, right and wrong. I love that passage that you just played about the writer's conference in Moscow. But there's another passage when he was a student at Oxford and working essentially as a spy - he infiltrated a student communist organization and reported on them. And he was asked, that was a terrible thing you did. Don't you feel guilty about betraying your fellow students in such a way? And his answer is simple. They were on the wrong side of history. They worshipped Stalin. I did not. Stalin, for me, was pure evil, and what I did was the right thing to do. So there you go. I don't think you're incorrect about saying that the books are filled with moral ambiguity. They are. But...

DETROW: Yeah.

MORRIS: ...He himself had a moral compass, a clear moral compass through it all. Maybe it's a contradiction. I don't know. You tell me.

DETROW: Well, perhaps related, perhaps not. One of the last lines in the movie is you saying to him is, I look at you as an exquisite poet of self-hatred. Why did you say that?

MORRIS: Because I felt his sense of disapproving of himself. I hate to say I feel the same way about myself. If I say that he's a kindred spirit, maybe we were both consumed by some level of self-hatred. I think it's one of the interesting things about him. He even tells us in the movie he never felt comfortable in his own skin. He always felt he was a poseur, a trickster, a liar. Maybe this comes from his father. Maybe it comes from being a spy. But it's part of which made him a great writer, this sense of unease and ambiguity. And at the very end of the movie, I think it's an important theme for our time - and I mean by our time right now - that history is chaos. Maybe there are no string pullers and dupes. Maybe it's all just crazy town out there.

DETROW: The last thing I wanted to ask you about is the idea of the subjectivity or objectivity of truth, whether it's possible to even pin it down, that hangs over this film. It hangs over many of your films. And I'm wondering, has your view on that big question changed over the years?

MORRIS: It hasn't. I understand why people say this to me. They say, doesn't David - David Cornwell is his real name, John le Carre - doesn't he believe in the subjectivity of truth? And I would say, no, he doesn't. He tells us in the movie that truth is absolutely objective. But in David's world, he says that truth is ineluctable. Perhaps it can only be known by some absent third party. And I ask him - I said God - is this like Pascal's hidden God? And I think it is. The truth is always a search, a quest. It's there. It exists. But it's never handed over to us on a silver salver. We have to fight to find it, and we may not always be successful.

DETROW: Do you think a novelist or a documentary filmmaker has an easier job at trying to figure that out?

MORRIS: Nope. I think it's hard for all of us.

DETROW: That's Errol Morris. Thanks so much for joining us.

MORRIS: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it. Thank you.

DETROW: His new documentary, "The Pigeon Tunnel," about novelist John le Carre is out now on Apple TV+. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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