Updated: Apr 21, 2022
Movies are a great way to experience the world of espionage, to include lessons for developing a spy mindset. All the Old Knives creates a believable world with carefully timed reveals and interesting looks behind the curtain, but it never quite launches.
We’ll first consider the plot devices that make this a spy movie. After all, a plot of love and (apparent) betrayal could be dramatized in one of many ways. For example, the spy novel Exfil uses the polygraph as a metaphor for the condition of a man’s soul.
The story centers on a highjacked airplane in Vienna. A terrorist group from Somalia is demanding the release of prisoners from Germany and Austria. From a spy mindset perspective, this raises two issues.
First, what can Vienna Station do to assist with the crisis? Do they have information about the terrorists? Can they collect information about the terrorists? Do they have advice about how to conduct a raid?
Unfortunately, Vienna Station has a small role to play because the conflict is between the terrorists and the governments of Germany and Austria. Vienna Station is a crucible of passive observers who pontificate about events mostly beyond their control.
Second, but for…the CIA has a source on the plane. He sends a message to CIA headquarters with details about the terrorists and options for a raid. However, this doesn’t help much because the CIA isn’t sharing the information with Germany or Austria, and any passenger on the plane with a cell phone could provide the same information.
The interesting thing about the source from a spy mindset perspective is that the second message sounds like a different person. This suggests the source might be compromised and that someone else sent the second message. Developing a spy mindset means knowing who is on the other end of your electronic communications.
This would be a great place to introduce a “freedom from duress” plot device. Basically, if the source isn’t under hostile control, he includes a key word or phrase to indicate that all is well. If this word or phrase is missing, it means the source is compromised and the message should be ignored. This was a missed opportunity.
In summary, the source on the plane is of marginal value and Vienna Station has a limited role to play in the hostage crisis – not ideal.
Shifting gears, we should consider the hero journey of Henry Pelham (Chris Pine) and his love interest Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton).
Eight years later, Vick Wallinger (Lawrence Fishburne), the Chief of Station in Vienna, asks Henry to run this issue to ground, once and for all, to include killing the guilty party. The mastermind of the highjack operation, Ilyas Shushani (Orli Shuka), a Chechen who was Henry’s source years ago in Russia, was captured recently and confessed to having a source inside Vienna Station. One of the suspects is Celia, so Henry calls her to schedule a dinner.
His dinner with Celia is the story – a framing device for the flashbacks. Most heroes aren’t capable of profound transformation during a single dinner.
At this point, the story would normally go one of two ways. First, in the tradition of Sophocles, Henry’s investigation would reveal his own unwitting guilt in the crime. Second, in the tradition of Hitchcock, Henry would discover that he was selected because his flaw or weakness would prevent him from uncovering the guilty party, perhaps Vick.
Instead, it turns out that Henry is the guilty party but did he it to save Celia’s life. His punishment: the CIA murders Henry before confessing to the crime, without due process, as if exposing a low-level source merited the death penalty.
To understand why the hero journey doesn’t work, we should consider Henry’s ghost – the significant event in his past that burdens his life today. Henry recruited Ilyas during a previous tour in Moscow. The CIA compromised him to the Russians in exchange for information to stop a terrorist attack. Henry wasn’t pleased.
This ghost opens the door for dramatic potential. Consider the symmetry: a spy who is upset that the CIA betrayed his source to achieve their objectives one day betrays a source to achieve his own objective. Henry betrays the source on the airplane to Ilyas, but it doesn’t resolve his core conflict. Are we to believe that Ilyas highjacked the airplane in Vienna to seek revenge against Henry?
The mechanics of the betrayal and coverup needed some polishing. Ilyas used one of Henry’s sources (Tamar) to schedule a meeting with him. Meanwhile, Tamar takes Celia to meet a person who is prepared to kill her if Henry doesn’t cooperate.
The problem is there was no reason for Ilyas to believe that Henry would have any useful information. Henry could have played dumb. Not to mention, Ilyas allowed Henry and Celia to go free before confirming the information. Perhaps the plan all along was to kill all the passengers.
After the source on the plan is executed, Henry attempts to cover his tracks by dialing an Iranian number (for Ilyas) from the desk phone of Vienna Station employee Bill Compton (Jonathan Pryce) to make it look like he was the mole. However, we never learn how Henry got this number or why he received a call from this number the next morning, which prompted Celia to conclude that he was the mole.
And finally, are we to believe that the CIA would poison Henry prior to his confession? Why not arrest him and question him for more information? There's a sense that Henry could have lived if CIA knew the truth, but too late.
All the Old Knives was a good way to pass a Sunday evening, with enough plot twists and reveals to keep you guessing, but the story doesn’t quite rise to the level, and the espionage plot devices fall short.