MOVIE REVIEW – Chris Pine and Thandiwe Newton play two veteran CIA agents and former lovers who meet again in a tragic old assignment to find out who is the mole responsible for the failure and deaths of several people in the US Federal Intelligence Agency. This superb adaptation of Janus Metz Olen Steinhauer’s novel on Amazon Prime is part drama, part old-fashioned spy film, and all of a piece of work that we don’t get enough of these days.
Years ago, Henry and Celia achieved what many people only dream of. They were both rising stars in the CIA, and their blossoming love romance filled what little free time they had to work at the agency’s Vienna station. Things worked out well, and although working in a covert intelligence agency is never easy, Henry Pelham and Celia Harrison were a good fit for each other and for their work. Then suddenly came a tragic mission that shocked them and the whole world: a hijacking.
Old school spy drama
Janus Metz‘s spy thriller The All the Old Knives is the kind of old-fashioned spy drama that studios sadly don’t make these days – perhaps reminiscent of similar Alfred Hitchcock films such as 1946’s Notorious, starring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman.
In this film, writer Olen Steinhauer adapts his own novel into a stylish, clever, twisty and, within its own “slow-burn” genre, exciting spy film, which is more for fans of John Le Carré novels (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Cobbler, Tailor, Jack, Spy, etc.) and their film adaptations, and not for fans of the more action-packed James Bond or Mission Impossible films. This is important to point out because Chris Pine has been in a few action spy movies (Jack Ryan, The Three Stooges, Wonder Woman, etc.), and Thandie Newton’s most memorable role was in Mission Impossible 2, alongside Tom Cruise (Newton recently complained that she experienced the filming with Cruise as a “horror”).
A clever mix of spy thriller and love story
But this film is quite different. True, on the one hand, it is a thrilling spy thriller that deals with a ripping machine hijacking that, although the film says it is an older event (2012), is eerily realistic in our time. The way the CIA tries to control the increasingly dramatic events – fighting the terrorists who hijacked the plane using its own network in Austria and its undercover agents – would be in keeping with a prestige spy series like 24 or The Last Runners, which we recently wrote about. On the other hand, this is a very intense chamber drama, very well developed, with a believable love interest and perfect chemistry between the two leads, Chris Pine and Thandie Newton. The film very cleverly combines these two sub-genres into one exciting spy thriller, in which the lunch between the two protagonists (during which Henry tries to find out what role Celia played in the mission failure and the tragedy of the hijacking) is often as tense and exciting as when they are working in the field.
The work of the director and screenwriter is praised not only for its well-dosed tension, spy drama, and at times hot, at others nostalgic, flashback romance, but also for the way it alternates time and space to tell a single story with multiple twists and turns and multiple points of view. One of the two timelines is Henry and Celia’s stay in Vienna eight years ago and their tragic mission; the other is their present-day reunion in a Californian restaurant near Celia’s new home. Fans of John Le Carré’s thought-provoking spy thrillers will be most attracted to the Vienna timeline. At the same time, those who prefer psychological, love dramas with pithy conversations will be drawn to the drama of the Californian setting. Although it was tricky to bring these two genres together, Steinhauer manages to twist his own fiction into an original, self-contained film that finally stands out from the constant franchises and series of IP-obsessed Hollywood.
Unfortunately, some minor flaws in the film prevent it from becoming a true classic, such as the aforementioned Le Carré adaptations and modern imitations (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Cobbler, Baka Tailor Spy, Last Run). Because Metz’s film focuses too much on its two main characters and their drama, the other, otherwise interesting characters really remain minor – including the always poker-faced and now also superb Laurence Fishburne as Wallinger, the CIA chief, or Jonathan Price as Bill Compton, another high-ranking CIA employee and Celia’s immediate boss. And we learn almost nothing about the other characters, who seem interesting, even though the story even points out that one of them committed suicide for some reason. Still, the same is true of the leader of the terrorists, whose story is initially told excitingly. Perhaps, it could have been even more significant if The All the Old Knives had been made into a mini-series rather than a single spy film.
On the other hand, the few big twists on which the story is built are pretty predictable, although the tension is still there throughout the film.
A must for fans of both genres
For lovers of classic John Le Carré-style spy thrillers and romance films like The English Patient, The All the Old Knives is a must-see. The CIA spy story is both exciting and modern, with a good dose of drama, suspense and twists. In contrast, the love story is authentic and realistic enough not to disappoint the more experienced viewer, who will soon find out about the big twists and turns.