All the Old Knives is a spy thriller without many thrills or much spy-craft. A James Bond or Jack Bauer adventure this is not. It takes place almost entirely in bars, cars and offices, mostly about people who aren’t in the field reacting to a terrorist attack and the messy post-mortem on what went wrong. The movie employs a flashback structure that adds to the emotional pathos, there’s flashes of immediacy in the brief glimpses of the terrorist attack, and the performance of the leads make it more compelling than it probably should be. And there is an interesting twist, eventually, by the end. Considering that the movie’s credits roll over a (very good!) cover of The Cure’s “Love Song”, at its core Old Knives is sort of a relationship melodrama more than the spy thriller it is billed as.
In 2012, the CIA couldn’t stop a terrorist hijack of an airplane that ended with everyone dead. Helplessly watching at Vienna station is agent Henry (Chris Pine), his girlfriend Celia (Thandiwe Newton), station head Vick (Laurence Fishburne), mopey analyst Bill (Jonathan Pryce), and several other agents. Years later, Celia has retired from spy life but Henry is asked by Vick to interview her. There was a suspected leak from their CIA office which may have led to the terrorists executing everyone on the plane, and Celia is a suspect. The two former flames reunite over dinner and several glasses of wine, but their reunion may uncover unwelcome and deadly secrets that have been hidden for years.
The flashback narrative gives it a sense of impending doom, even though it’s a bit sloppy and sometimes confusing with flashbacks inside of flashbacks. The film begins, very effectively, where everything has gone completely wrong as the CIA station agents just look horrified. When the movie flashes back to events before the massacre as the agents scramble to stop it, the audience knows their efforts will ultimately be fruitless. The flashbacks are structured in a dinner conversation between Henry and Celia years later as he tries to piece together what happened. Often, the camera is placed directly in front of the actors faces which puts the viewer in the place of the character that gives it a sense of intimacy. By the end of their dinner conversation some shocking developments happen which shatter the casual chit-chat.
Pine’s performance is good, but it is better the second time around because his reactions during the flashback are interesting as the audience knows what happened. Henry has different hairstyles and beard levels for a guideline to when events happened as the story flops back and forth between timelines. One of the best moments is when he talks about being forced to sell out an informant, Ilyas (Orli Shuka), and the shame and anger Henry has is palatable. Later, he has a confrontation with the former informant and it’s a very powerful, very raw exchange as Henry is forced to confront what his actions have done to Ilyas and how he is partly culpable for everything that has transpired.
The romantic scenes between Pine and Newton have romantic fire which makes the scenes years later when they’re disconnected have melancholy. Newton has a few good moments where she’s aghast at revelations she has uncovered but keeps it to herself like a good spy should. Her reactions in the future when she’s incredibly bitter about the whole experience have bite, and there’s a shocking moment when she reveals she has nightmares about being trapped on the hijacked plane with her kids.
As their steadfast boss, Fishburne is doing the gruff mentor he has done many times before, but Fishburne is really good at it. Also, like the other actors, he shows the events of that day have haunted Vick for years. As the somewhat dopey CIA agent, Pryce’s Bill has a pathetic quality as he’s always being called away from the CIA station to look after his wife. He seems like a sad sack who would betray everyone to make a name for himself. Henry also interviews Bill years later and their conversation goes from friendly to nasty. There are a couple of more CIA agents that end up being mostly forgettable red herrings to be seriously considered as the mole. The glimpses inside the hijacked plane are harrowing and gruesome with sudden bursts of violence by the terrorists. The main terrorist guy who lists all the demands is played by Abdul Alshareef and the his snippets of emotion he shows have a lot of layers; like when he makes the final, deadly proclamation he seems legitimately frightened yet determined to carry out evil.
While there isn’t any sort of action in All the Old Knives, the slow creeping feel of helplessness to stop the disaster is very real. It’s mostly about close-ups of actors bouncing from friendly to intense as they try to uncover the truth, and the answer is nicely surprising and emotionally fitting. There’s a lot of talking to get to the point but it does have an effective sense of finality.
All the Old Knives
Director: Janus Metz Pedersen
Starring: Chris Pine, Thandiwe Newton, Laurence Fishburne, Jonathan Pryce and David Dawson