Character Study with Top-Notch Actors and a Few Plot Issues
I love spy movies. I don’t need them to be full of exploding bodies and violent torture. What I love is the intricacy of never knowing who to trust, of characters forced to betray people to serve a larger good, and the many gray areas that life inhabits. The two main actors in All The Old Knives do a beautiful job in their character portrayals. The main issues I have are with the underlying book that this movie is based on.
First, the premise. About ten years ago, there was a tragic airplane hostage situation with terrorists. Everyone on the plane ended up dying in poison gas. Two spies (Pine, Newton) were traumatized by this and their relationship fell apart. We meet up with them in modern times, when Newton has moved on. She has a husband and children. Pine is tasked with reviewing the airplane tragedy and figuring out if a mole was involved.
A beautiful part of the way All The Old Knives unfolds is that you look back to the characters before the airplane tragedy, when the characters were just getting started in the spy-world. You get to see how they reacted to the hostage situation unfolding. And then you also get to watch them in a much more mature state, when they have had time to reflect.
I’m thrilled that Newton was older than Pine. So many stories have the older man – much younger woman trope. It’s refreshing that there are alternatives to that.
I am absolutely baffled by people who found the three-time-period situation confusing. We’re only talking about two characters – and they are played by the exact same actors!! Do these people watch Game of Thrones or any of the other wildly complicated shows that are out there nowadays? All The Old Knives was if anything a breath of fresh air in that regard. There were barely seven or so main cast members total in the entire movie. I found it incredibly easy to understand and beautiful to watch how the characters were developing and changing.
As with all good spy movies, there were twists and turns to keep you guessing who was actually responsible for the betrayal – and why.
The issues I have with the movie involve some of those details.
A reviewer mentioned that it would be iffy for the terrorists to get large volumes of guns and ammo onto a plane through security. We only see 2 guns, I believe, and only maybe 4 shots are fired that I know of. They gassed everyone else. I think we can suspend disbelief that the terrorists were able to smuggle in parts for 2 guns and a handful of ammo.
There’s a reason colleagues are not supposed to get intimately involved in spy situations. It clouds judgement. It turns out that Pine had previously been forced to betray someone in the line of duty and it tore away at him. When he then gets to the hostage situation, he is once again told either he betrays an agent on the plane of Newton is going to be sacrificed. Pine chooses to save Newton and give up the agent.
Pine didn’t cause the plane to be gassed!! He just sacrificed the identity of one agent on the plane. And, heck, that agent only texted that MAYBE a rescue could be launched in a certain way. If the agent was smart he wouldn’t be sending plain-speak text messages to anyone, in case his phone was found. Also, he should have been deleting each text after he sent it, for the same reason. So even if he was ‘sold out’ and his phone taken, the terrorists wouldn’t have known the attack he’d suggested. They wouldn’t have known anything at all. Why didn’t the terrorists search everyone for phones in the first place?
Still, it’s an issue that Pine gave up an agent to protect his lover Newton. True. So then here we are, years later, and Pine is still pining over Newton. He loves her even though she’s moved on. He accepts the task, from his bosses, to interview Newton and another guy to see if either is responsible for ratting out the agent. Clearly he knows neither is the mole since Pine himself is the mole. But still Pine HIRES A HITMAN to lurk around in case Newton is the mole and needs to be killed. Newton, the woman he still adores. Why would Pine even take the chance that something goes wrong and the hitman kills her?
Pine harasses the other guy, who of course calls Newton to warn her. Together the two dump everything they know about Pine to the higher-ups who decide they’re going to kill Pine without even figuring out first if he really is guilty. The higher-ups have Newton agree to have dinner with Pine and Pine is poisoned AT DINNER. So he is already dead (but doesn’t know it yet). Then Newton and Pine chat, really just so there is more documentation about what Pine did. But again they don’t even know for sure Pine is the mole or if he had a good rationale for what he did! By the time Newton finds out Pine betrayed the agent to save her, it’s too late. He’s dead anyway. And he can barely keep the hitman from killing her. I suppose it creates a Romeo-Juliet tension of whether they will both end up dying, but plot-wise it makes no sense.
And, again, it’s not like revealing the agent was the make-or-break of the hostage situation. It was sheer luck there was even an agent on the plane. All the agent did was suggest the soldiers attack from a specific angle. The soldiers could have figured out some sort of a plan without the agent. They chose to do nothing at all, and they knew what the result would be.
Separately, for a movie which is 100% focused on character relationships, they primarily had the two spies having sex to show they were a meaningful couple. It seemed fairly gratuitous. There are many other ways to show a couple is truly close and trusting. Heck, non-trusting people have sex.
And also, a number of the key “revelations” in the flashbacks were things that a loving trusting couple should absolutely have known about each other already. It didn’t make sense that this would be something suddenly revealed all these years later. If anything, maybe the over-focus on sex and the lack of knowledge about each other shows Pine was a fool to have loved Newton so much to risk an agent’s life for her.
So, anyway, I’ll give it 4/5 for the great actors and an intriguing story. But there are definitely enough issues here that it doesn’t get that final star.