This is the kind of slow-burning character piece that would once have been a preferred theatrical alternative to the usual blockbusters and blue sky rays. But in the age of streaming, such movies land on Amazon Prime, etc., amassing noise for a week or two before joining the next new thing and the requirements of the algorithm. Its a shame.
Starting after a terrorist hijacking in 2012, All the Old Knives move on to 2020, with CIA analyst Henry Pelham (Pine) locating former fellow analyst and former friend Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton), now with family, and retiring from the service. Of course, since this is a spy thriller, we can assume that things are a little more complicated than they seem.
Pelham was instructed by station chief Vick Wallinger (Lawrence Fisburn) to “close the book” on some unanswered questions from that tragic day in which an entire passenger plane was killed. So he and Celia are reunited eight years after the hijacking, with the passion for each other still simmering beneath the surface; but it’s not long before those old knives start coming out.
Espionage is bad. It’s dirty. And as directed by Janus Metz Pedersen (whose 2017 Borg / McEnroe movie I really enjoyed), All the Old Knives avoids the explosion and spectacle of Bond and Ryan for a more intimate, quiet film that lives largely in close-ups as various characters look at each other at tables in restaurants and eateries. It gets into the difficulty of espionage – the emotional and psychological price involved in moving people who live, breathe here and there on a fantastic chessboard.
This is a role that fits Chris Pine uniquely.
In that sense, this is a role uniquely suited to Pine, benefiting greatly from the almost decade-long fermentation of Jack Ryan’s escape. It conveys both cold calculations and raw turmoil through its eyes (helped a lot by these aforementioned close-ups). The actor’s chemistry with Newton is palpable, not only in their love scenes (of which they are few), but in the longing and distance they convey as the plot details unfold methodically, each intersection from the past to the present enlightening more details in an extremely complex patchwork of fatal events.
As for this plot (with Steinhauer’s own script), I’m not entirely sure how well they all hold together after a few hours to take stock, but certainly right now, there are enough twists and turns to justify the investment. While there is the awkwardness that this is another Hollywood film that exposes the stereotypes of barbaric Arab terrorists, there is at least one attempt to show more complexity in these matters than many of the “They hate us for our freedom” debates. after September 11th.
There is an air of melancholy methodically woven in All the Old Knives. Far from feeling heroic or noble, it is the feeling that this job – although it is often necessary – has somewhat broken all the people who are in charge of doing it. Not just Pelham and Harrison, but Wallinger and his second, Bill Compton (Jonathan Price). It has to do with death and betrayal and tragedy, but mostly it has to do with grief. Incurable sadness.