Wednesday, April 06, 2022

All the Old Knives, on Amazon Prime

During the Cold War, there were high-ranking traitors (particularly from Cambridge) who betrayed their countries in the West, because they were seduced by the Soviet ideology. The harsh dogma of Islamist jihadists was assumed to hold much less allure for anyone accustomed to the tolerance and/or “decadence” of the West. Yet, someone in the CIA’s Vienna station apparently fed sensitive information to a notorious jihadist terrorist group. Henry Pelham will interrogate his former lover and colleague Celia Harrison, over dinner and drinks, as part of his investigation into the hijacking of Flight 127 in Janus Metz’s All the Old Knives, adapted by Olen Steinhauer from his own novel, which premieres Friday on Amazon Prime.

The horrific mass murder of all souls aboard Flight 127 remains a source of embarrassment to the CIA, but they are forced to pick at the wound when a captured terrorist claims they had an inside source. Pelham gets that job, thanks to his old station chief, Vick Wallinger. His prime suspects are Harrison and her former boss, Bill Compton.

Heartbroken and guilt-ridden over the hijacking incident, Harrison retired to Eastwood’s town, Carmel-by-the-Sea. It is there that she agrees to meet Pelham for an intimate evening of wine and memories. As we see in flashbacks, he also had a much less romantic meeting with Compton. In fact, most of the film consists of flashbacks, which slowly reveal exactly what went wrong with the agency’s response.

Watching their wary yet still flirtatious cat-and-mouse game is pretty compelling, if you like your espionage on the talky-side, rather than action-oriented. However, Steinhauer really draws out his revelations. His narrative probably could have been compressed into an hour-long episode of an anthology series, without any great loss of drama or context.

Still, the Vienna backdrop is well chosen (evoking the tradition of
The Third Man). The CIA station feels grounded in reality and veteran character actors like Jonathan Pryce and Laurence Fishburne add world-weary resignation and grizzled steeliness. Orli Shuka also has a big, powerful presence as terrorist mastermind Ilyas Shushani.

However, Thandiwe Newton completely outclasses Chris Pine in their roles as the central couple. She generates a lot of potent heat, anxiety, and regret, but he is just too bland and blow-dried. The film needed someone to slow-burn like Mel Gibson in his pre-disgrace prime.

The cerebral vibe of
Knives is appealing and whether it is accurate or not, it gives a sense of what it might be like to work at a high-pressure CIA station. Metz’s execution just should have been tighter and Pine’s portrayal darker. It is not recommended beyond the fans of Steinhauer and le Carre, whereas more casual audiences for spy programming should check out Apple TV+’s Slow Horses instead. All the Old Knives starts streaming Friday (4/8) on Amazon Prime.