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‘Old Knives’: Spy biz comes with a cost – Play It Again, Tim

All The Old Knives
Written by Tim Miller

“All the Old Knives” (R, 101 minutes, in theaters and on Amazon Prime Video) begins in 2012 Vienna.

Terrorists have taken over a plane at an airport and threaten to kill everyone on board.

A team of CIA operatives in Vienna gather in their office and scramble to prevent bloodshed. Some scatter to contact sources that could help. They also catch a break: Someone on the plane contacts them and secretly feeds them information about what’s going on. The pressure mounts.

It doesn’t end well.

Eight years pass. The CIA suspects that there might have been a mole among the agents who helped feed the terrorists information during the hijacking. Henry Pelham (Chris Pine), who was on the scene then and still works as a CIA operative, is assigned to investigate. It means tracking down and investigating former colleagues under suspicion – including his ex-lover, Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton).

All The Old Knives

Thandiwe Newton and Chris Pine appear in a scene from “All the Old Knives.” (Stefania Rosini/Amazon Studios)

Celia left the agency – and Pelham – immediately after the 2012 ordeal. She got married, had children and now lives in California. Pelham flies out, calls her, and the two agree to meet for dinner at a swank oceanfront restaurant at Carmel-by-the-Sea.

The meeting between the ex-lovers becomes a kind of interrogation, as they relive what exactly happened that day in Vienna and the morning after. Flashbacks abound as their memories are triggered.

Directed by Janus Metz (“Borg vs. McEnroe”) and written by Olen Steinhauer, who adapted his own novel, “All the Old Knives” delivers a smart spy story in the John le Carre tradition – think “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” without the same level of complexity. There’s plenty of passion in the flashback scenes of Henry and Celia, but the emphasis here remains the dirty business of espionage, with all of its dark secrets, ruthlessness and betrayals.

The film leaves you wondering: Can a spy be human? Is there room for morality? How do these characters reconcile the personal and the professional (including what might be perceived as their patriotic duty) when making horrible choices appears to be part of the job description? What would you do in their shoes?

Pine and Newton are up to the task of depicting the strain that such choices place on the psyches of Henry and Celia. But it’s Jonathan Pryce, as Bill Compton, another former operative also suspected of being the mole, who captures the full effects of a life spent in the spy business. Now retired and elderly, Bill appears like the walking dead, hollowed out by the brutal demands of an insidious occupation.

Is this a case of “It’s a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it”? Maybe. But I’d sure hate to end up like Bill Compton. *** (out of four)

Belated Oscar reactions

So I got five out of six predictions correct in the top Academy Awards categories. I incorrectly guessed (and correctly hoped) that Benedict Cumberbatch (“The Power of the Dog”) would prevail over Will Smith (“King Richard”). We all know how that turned out.

Oh, I didn’t predict the slap, either. My take: a terribly insensitive joke by Chris Rock, followed by an inappropriate reaction by Smith – though I can appreciate his anger. It doesn’t help Smith’s case that Rock is significantly shorter and lighter than he is. Would Smith have reacted the same way if Jason Momoa had cracked the joke? My guess: no. But I don’t think we’ll ever find out. Smith’s been banned from the Oscars for 10 years.

As for the actual awards, which became the secondary story: no complaints. I was glad Jessica Chastain won best actress for “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” and Troy Kotsur won best supporting actor for “CODA.” And while “CODA” isn’t in the same league as fellow best-picture nominee “Drive My Car,” it’s such a sweet film (yeah, I choked up at the end) that it was nice to see it get honored.

** Click here for  Tim Miller’s previous movie columns for Cape Cod Wave **

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Tim Miller

Play It Again, Tim

Tim Miller is a Cape-based member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He also teaches film and journalism at Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or follow him onTwitter @TimMillerCritic. Or you can ignore him completely.

About the author

Tim Miller

Tim Miller, a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics, was the Cape Cod Times film critic for nearly 36 years. A Detroit native (and hardcore Tigers fan), he’s been obsessed with movies since skipping school in 1962 to see “Lawrence of Arabia” with his parents when he was 7. Miller earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and his master’s from Suffolk University, where he taught film and journalism for 10 years. He continues to teach film at Curry College and Cape Cod Community College. He is a juror each year for the short-film competition of the Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival, has moderated several panel discussions at the Woods Hole Film Festival and frequently is heard as a guest on Cape & Islands NPR station WCAI. His work appeared as a chapter in the book “John Sayles: Interviews.” His favorite movie is Cameron Crowe's “Almost Famous” – because it makes him feel good to be alive.

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