The movie All the Old Knives is a spy thriller apparently based on a novel by Olen Steinhauer, whose considered, murky, and indeterminate approach to his craft, combined with the generational space between the two, has earned him comparisons to the late John Le Carré.
The filmmakers behind Knives have expressed their interest in making a grown-up spy film, and this one moves slowly. Unfortunately, such is not to the advantage of their central efforts.
Chris Pine plays Henry Pelham, an officer of the Central Intelligence Agency. He is informed in the present day by his boss that eight years ago, during the hijacking of a plane in Vienna, the CIA station where he worked had an informant passing information to the terrorists — a “mole.” (Henry and his boss seem pretty certain from the get-go that neither of them are under suspicion, which simplifies the story, though avoiding Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy levels of complexity might not be the clearest route to making a thinking person’s movie). Henry is tasked with interviewing his former colleagues to determine who the traitor might be: Celia, played by Thandiwe Newton, who had then been his colleague and girlfriend? — Vick, his mentor and the boss whose life outside boss-being was unknown? — Bill, Celia’s mentor, a man whose home life was some kind of mess? — the guy who later killed himself? — the analyst who was always coming up with counterfactuals? — the woman who, like the terrorists, was Muslim? (If some of these descriptions seem hackneyed and shallow, it is because they are. The movie has too much contemporary good taste to seriously suggest that the Muslim woman did it, while the fact that the real motive behind the other cipher/colleague’s suicide is never revealed underscores the extent to which he and the implied mental anguish of his last days on Earth are just red herrings).
Some years ago now, when the James Bond flick Quantum of Solace came out, it was critiqued because its villain’s central scheme — getting yet richer by cornering the Bolivian drinking water market — seemed too small-potatoes for Bond villain. The danger in Knives is the murder of more than 100 hostages. And while that is enough to get audiences invested in these non-Bond spies, it unbalances the movie in the opposite direction as does Quantum’s scheme. Well before we find out who the mole is, we learn that they are motivated by a version of the trolley problem: they must trade the lives of the scores of hostages for one person they care about. It is also suggested that at least one other member of the office knew the identity of the mole, and kept it secret for years, again because of their reaction to a trolley-type dilemma. Because we are not invited to see as monsters any of these characters who are surprisingly flippant about all that death on the other side of the leger, it is hard to accept their decisions as motivated by anything other than the writer’s desire to lead the story to the California restaurant where Henry and Celia sit down and talk through the past. Maybe it would have worked better conceptually if the alternative to the death of a loved one had been the killing of just one, or a handful of people.
As we learn that the mole was an unwilling helper to the terrorists, the nature of the choice to which they put this person becomes ludicrous: let us kill these hundred people sometime in the next several hours, or we kill one person you care about in the next five minutes. You really need the character who chose the safety of one person to be a beast if, after their beloved has made it to safety, they keep implicitly carrying water for the terrorists for the remainder of the hostage crisis (when not going home for a good night’s sleep). Yet that is what happens, even though this is not presented as a D. B. Cooper-style hijacking. The terrorists are in a grounded plane at the end of its voyage, for which they have not requested fuel. It is obvious that the central scenario involves them killing everyone on board. The real-world implications of the mole’s choice is not hidden from them as they make it, nor during the long period after they make it and before it is too late to try to help the hostages without risking a single friend or loved one’s life.
To top it off, it is clear that after the hostage crisis is over, the surviving terrorists have excellent leverage over their mole — a well-connected individual clearly responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths. Yet it is not suggested that, in the eight years separating the movie’s then from its now, these power-hungry individuals ever used this leverage (if they had, the mole would be a monster, and the movie would not work).
The plot moves slowly through its beats — if not slowly enough to take time to talk much about the three junior members of the Vienna station — leaving ample opportunity to wonder about its incongruities. Why, for instance, did the terrorist-acquainted mole not clearly establish and perhaps kill a scapegoat well before Henry and Celia met, decreasing the odds of unmasking during that encounter?
The casting of Pine and Newton, both in their forties, does give the present-day scenes a level of gravitas that the casting of whippersnappers might not, as does the film’s decision to grey Pine’s hair (Newton is left in that luminously indeterminate middle age which Hollywood does so well — Toni Collette seems to be the only leading actress permitted to regularly, earnestly look older than forty and younger than sixty on screen). Yet here again, while the casting and makeup telegraph seriousness, they contradict the script. Henry and Celia were supposed to be very inexperienced in Vienna, each on their second tours out of college. While they look to be perhaps in their thirties in the flashbacks, they fail to deliver the “were we ever so young?” vibe that might have helped the movie sell the decisions they made at the time, if not the decisions they implicitly made every day of the eight years since.
A viewer is left wishing that the movie would pick up the pace or otherwise provide a distraction from such things as the recurring problems Henry has with his drink orders at the restaurant. (We have been told that Henry had once been a promising rookie agent. He must have lost several steps even by the time he got to Vienna, where he could neglect to look at his own cell phone’s call log). Vienna-era Henry is shown as being aghast at brutal Russian interrogation tactics but in favor of brutal Russian hostage-rescue tactics. While it would be great if this contradiction either fed into the resolution of the movie’s mystery or was separately resolved in a scene that diverted attention from the central question until the movie was ready for it, neither is the case. Henry has exactly the experiences and beliefs that he needs to have to lead him to the restaurant in California. Ditto for Celia. It makes such things as the movie’s brief gestures in the direction of the male suicidal and female Muslim characters even more unsettling than they might otherwise have been: could they at least have been given something entertaining or valuable to do before their use-function as distractions from the real mole were discharged? Chinua Achebe once wrote witheringly about a half-hearted defense of Heart of Darkness he heard from an unnamed sympathetic critic: “Africa is merely a setting for the disintegration of the mind of Mr Kurtz.” The same might be said here, though Knives is no Darkness: Islamicist terror in Europe is merely a setting for the disintegration of the mind of Mr Pelham. (To be fair to everyone who is not Le Carré: it is bleedingly difficult to write a pacy story in which interstate geopolitics and corporate rapacity are as nail-bitingly interesting as, say, the legacy of our parents or that one lover who was more than we probably deserved. The world of international exploitation is, most often, and whether writers will it or not, “merely a setting”).
Show me more, I thought, looking at the screen during Knives. No, the movie said, moving in slowly for ever-tighter closeups of Pine and Newton’s eyes.
There are ways of filming and cutting such movies that tend to hide, in the moment, the weaknesses of plotting and motivation. Part of the reason Knives does not quite work is that it consciously (if interviews with the cast and crew are to be believed) runs away from the most audience-friendly tromps d’œil.
In 2001, Tony Scott directed Robert Redford and Brad Pitt in Spy Game. Both actors were probably too old to play the characters for which they were cast, though the conceit was helped along by the fact that both leads had built their careers around a certain boyish rakishness, and by the fact that Redford’s character was supposed to be older than Pitt’s, which was always visibly the case: each actor made the other look closer to a realistic age by comparison.
In the main secondary timeline of Game (itself a nest of flashbacks), Pitt plays a young hotshot CIA field officer who falls in love with a woman who at first seems to be a bit of a starry eyed idealist in over her head, but reveals herself to be much more clear-eyed about tradeoffs in the real world than is Pitt’s character (so far, so Knives). Game, like Knives, features a series of overlapping trolley problems, though the balance in each dilemma is such that the decision made by relevant characters is credible: this life or that one? — these very many lives or those very many lives? — the continuation of one life, or comfort in another? Redford’s character is, at one phase of his life at least, more of a tub-thumper than any character in Knives might be, though Scott tempers the bombast by cutting the relevant scene to hell. (The story of how Scott, denied a helicopter from which to film this scene’s coverage shots by a producer, then went out and rented one on his own dime, is a salutary reminder of the extent to which major movies are very much a playground for the rich and powerful). All told, Game does a good job of suggesting that it is the grinding and morally dubious interactions Pitt’s character has with Redford’s, especially around the matter of Pitt’s compromised girlfriend, that age him prematurely into the man the audience sees in the present-day frame narrative. Will all the cutting here and there going on, audiences had to stay on the edge of their seats and focus, really peer into the actors’ performances, to understand what was going on.
This is partly because at that stage of his career, Scott cut all his scenes to hell. There were on-the-nose shots in which an actor clearly telegraphed their character’s motivation or a MacGuffin was placed clearly in focus, but a few seconds later, it would be replaced on screen by another shot, which left just as fast. Scott was a forerunner of the sensory overload mode of filmmaking which has become the norm for so-called blockbuster movies today, and while it has come in for a fair bit of opprobrium, it serves a key purpose: ensuring that increasingly sophisticated audiences do not outrun the story before the credits roll.
It also, in Scott’s hands (if not in those of later practitioners such as J. J. Abrams, who has directed Pine in recent Star Trek movies), gave the opportunity for nominal throwaway shots (each shot holds the screen, after all, for just an instant) that enriched the socio-cultural context of what might otherwise be mere popcorn entertainment. There is a reason that Scott, in his last years, was the preferred director of Denzel Washington as the actor made a career out of the nexus between action and intelligence. Scott’s scripts were not any better than Knives’ (in some cases, like The Taking of Pelham 1–2–3, they were much worse, and he had all he could do to make a mediocrity of minced ham) but his approach to them, far from dumbing them down, gave viewers a tour of story-adjacent materials as he, his cast and crew performed their magic.
Now, it is possible that I am overestimating the extent to which Knives fails to cache its secrets. The prevalence of “ending explained” articles online attests to the fact that, even when not faced with one of Christopher Nolan’s original concepts, general audiences may not race ahead to the resolution of the matter. Still, given that general audiences may still get bored, the misdirection, in addition to distracting the audience and enabling the possibility of directors squeezing in side commentary about the world in which we live, does have a nice little bread-and-circuses effect that ought not be sniffed at.
In the end, Knives handles the central character’s girlfriend (here, Newton, a co-lead) with greater interest than Game ever did, though it does her few favors by the way in which it fleshes Celia out. We are supposed to wonder right from the get-go if we are dealing with a spiritual cousin of Annette Bening’s character from The Siege. To which the movie gives us little to work with either way, other than that she and Henry were once sufficiently fond of one another that a hundred needless deaths back in the day inspired the same level of regret and remembrance in them that a madeleine might inspire in the life of a mere mortal. Like flies to wanton boys. . . .
While Knives does deserve credit as a movie that makes you think, what it is apt to make you think most is how nice it would be if the filmmakers had given more thought of their own to plot and character motivation, or had made their world as rich and capable of covering a lot of ground as the drop-top car in which Henry drove to meet Celia one last time.