‘All the Old Knives’ Takes a Different Approach to the Spy Genre

Thanks to James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Ethan Hunt, we’ve grown accustomed to globetrotting action-packed thrillers in the spy genre. But of course, there is the flip side: the quiet and unheralded work done by intelligence agents…those who typically use their brains more often than their fists or guns. Director Janus Metz Pedersen (the underrated Borg vs. McEnroe, 2017) has based All the Old Knives on the 2015 book by Olen Steinhauer.

It’s 2012 and we are inside the Vienna station of the CIA as the agents meet to strategize their response to a terrorist act – the hijacking of Turkish Alliance Airline Flight 127. The team is unable to prevent tragedy, and it’s clear this is a case that will stick with them. Eight years later, the station chief (Laurence Fishburne) calls Henry Pelham (Chris Pine) back in to let him know that on orders from Langley the case has been re-opened. The terrorist behind that hijacking has been recently captured and disclosed that he had a CIA mole inside the Vienna station. Henry is to re-interview everyone involved to uncover the double agent.

One of those interviewed is his former supervisor played by Jonathan Pryce. He’s now retired, and Henry forces him to go back through all the details, some of which are uncomfortably personal. But that doesn’t compare to how personal the next interview hits. Celia (Thandiwe Newton) was not just Henry’s fellow agent, but also his lover. She has since left the agency and is living a pleasant family life in stunning Carmel-by-the-Sea, perhaps the most picturesque coastal area in the U.S. Chris Pine gets to look really cool driving a convertible over Bixby Bridge.

Director Pedersen works in numerous flashbacks to the relationship between Henry and Celia, and it’s through these that we come to understand their connection and the type of people they are. But ultimately, it’s their meeting at the fancy restaurant with the breathtaking view that serves as the key to the movie and the story. In fact, because their time sharing a table and wine is so substantial and critical, it could easily transition to a stage play. It’s a high-level game of cat-and-mouse between two beautiful and smart characters. You may know where it’s headed, but it’s unlikely you’ll know how it will get there.

It’s easy to see this being a popular streaming choice as the characters and setting are easy on the eyes. The deeper questions asked here are what to do when a loved one isn’t who you thought they were. Also, can you trust those trained to not trust others? As previously stated, it’s a bit of a different spin on the spy genre. Less action/thriller and more character study.