“All the Old Knives” is directed by Janus Metz and written by Olen Steinhauer (who is also the author of the book the movie is based on). It opens with the 2012 hijacking of Flight 127 by terrorists and the Vienna team of the CIA trying to make head or tail of the situation. The team features Henry Pelham (Chris Pine), Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton), Vick Wallinger (Laurence Fishburne), Bill Compton (Jonathan Pryce), Ernst Pul (Jonjo O’Neill), Leila Maloof (Ahd), and Owen Lassiter (David Dawson), all of whom fail to capture the terrorists or save any of the passengers on board. On top of that, their failure led to the death of an informant who was giving the CIA valuable information about the hijacking.
Eight years later, the case is reopened after the mastermind behind the attack, Ilyas Shushani (Orli Shuka), is captured, who reveals that a mole in the CIA leaked information to the terrorists, thereby leading to the debacle. Vick calls in Henry to relook into the case and interview/interrogate Bill Compton and Celia Harrison because the calls that went from Vienna to Iran came from their phones. Henry pays Bill a visit and then zeroes in on Celia after Vick essentially tells Henry to kill Celia for her apparent betrayal. Henry visits Celia at a restaurant of her choice, and over the course of a lengthy conversation, all kinds of truths come to the surface, leaving Henry, Celia, and the audience’s jaws on the floor.
Major Spoilers Ahead
Why Does Vick Wallinger Send Henry Pelham To Get Celia Harrison?
The reason that’s initially given to us is that Langley has officially opened the case on Flight 127 and found out about Bill and Celia’s apparent involvement in the debacle of the hostage situation and their informant’s death. So, Vick wants Henry to go after them because Vick is aware of Henry’s proximity to Bill and Celia (especially Celia, because of their romantic past). And we are made to assume that Vick believes that Henry is the only person who can get close enough to the duo without raising any red flags and help the CIA get confirmation of their hand in the 2012 incident.
But the truth is quite the opposite. Vick sends Henry to go after Celia because Celia is the only person who can get confirmation of Henry’s involvement in the Flight 127 debacle without raising any red flags. It’s not very clear, but Henry goes after Bill on his own, because he is the person that Henry set up as the scapegoat in the off chance that the CIA conducted an investigation. However, it’s apparent that Vick fools Henry into thinking that he’s heading into an interview with Celia, because it is the other way around. Why doesn’t Vick kill him off directly and make it look like a death by suicide (like it eventually happens)? For the audible confession and to make things a little spicy.
Was Bill Compton Guilty Of Betraying The CIA?
No, clearly not. Bill was framed by Henry because Bill’s phone was accessible to Henry, and Bill’s uneven exits from the office because of his wife’s illness could be framed as an excuse Bill made to establish contact with the terrorists or those who are helping said terrorists. Henry wanted Bill to be the fall guy, and Henry pushes all his buttons at the pub to try and make him say something that would allow Henry to incriminate Bill. But since Bill sticks to his truth, he walks free. That’s why he is able to warn Celia about the fact that Henry is looking for a mole in the CIA. And now that Henry is done with Bill, he’s going to come after Celia because she’s one of the two people with access to Bill’s phone in Vienna and one of the two who made a call to Iran.
Why Did Ilyas Shushani Orchestrate The Hijacking Of Flight 127?
On the surface, the hijack looked like a cliched, Islamophobic portrayal of a Muslim character taking innocent lives in the name of Allah. But the existence of multiple layers to this hostage situation was hinted at through Henry’s backstory. During one of Henry’s first missions, he was assigned to a case in Moscow, where he got in touch with Ilyas in the hopes of getting information on an impending terrorist attack. Henry not only won Ilyas’s trust, but became close with Ilyas’s family. When the terrorist attack happened, and people died (something that Ilyas had nothing to do with), The CIA asked Henry to give up Ilyas to the Russians to avoid making the CIA look like an idiot. The CIA even went ahead with it, despite Henry’s disapproval, causing Ilyas to be taken away from his family.
Then it was explicitly stated that Henry was part of the reason why Ilyas decided to make the hijacking happen in Vienna. It’s not just a coincidence. When Ilyas was taken away, he was brutalized by the Russians. When Ilyas fled with his family to Iran, he couldn’t medicate his sick daughter due to the sanctions on the country by the USA, thereby causing Ilyas’s daughter’s death. None of this would’ve happened if the CIA didn’t give up Ilyas to the Russians. None of this would’ve happened if Henry didn’t treat Ilyas as his contact. None of this would’ve happened if the people accused of war crimes were punished and not their victims.
So, yes, the hijack was Ilyas’s way of indirectly getting back at those who caused his family’s death. Simultaneously, it was Ilyas’s way of making Henry experience the fear of losing a loved one. Ilyas used the hostages to lead both Henry and Celia (because Ilyas is aware of Henry’s love for Celia) away from each other and cornered them. And then Ilyas threatened to kill Celia if Henry didn’t give information on the Americans’ and Austrians’ plans of action. Since Henry chose Celia over the CIA informant and the lives of the hostages, Ilyas forced Henry to live with the blood of hundreds on his hands. Henry suffered the brunt of Ilyas’s anger towards the USA and Russia, kind of like the millions of Muslims around the world who end up being collateral damage because of bad national and international policies.
Was Henry Pelham Going To Frame Or Kill Celia Harrison?
Not at all. Henry explicitly stated that everything he did was a ploy to save Celia. He calculated the fact that if the CIA traced back the steps of the Vienna team, they would zero in on Bill because Henry made the Iran call through his phone. He didn’t anticipate Celia taking down the number from Bill’s phone and making a call. He didn’t foresee Celia going down the proverbial rabbit hole, right into Ilyas’s trap and being used by Ilyas to threaten Henry. Through some clever editing, we are made to think that Celia feigned her emotions to strategically get out of the Vienna building and contact the terrorists. But that wasn’t the case at all. In fact, Henry said aloud that he wasn’t there at the restaurant to kill or get Celia arrested. He said that he wanted to do this interview because he had been asked to do so. Then he was going to make a bloated report about the interview and send it to the CIA on a different route and off their backs. The real reason why Henry agreed to do the interview at all was because he wanted closure regarding Celia’s abrupt exit from their passionate relationship.
‘All the Old Knives’ Ending Explained: Why Did Celia Harrison Kill Henry Pelham?
The reason why Celia left the relationship was a call from an Iranian number to Henry’s phone. She assumed that Henry was involved with the terrorists and had caused the death of the CIA informant and the passengers aboard Flight 127. That’s why she bolted and ran as far away from Henry as she possibly could. She got married, had a kid, and was living her life tension-free. Until the case was reopened and the CIA found Henry’s involvement in the case. Bill warned Celia about the fact that Henry was coming after both of them. Since she feared that Henry was going to take her away from her family or her family away from her, she agreed to collaborate with the CIA operation headed by Karl (Corey Johnson) to take down Henry. She didn’t know anything about Henry’s efforts to save Celia from being killed by Ilyas’s men or that he created all this diversion so that the CIA wouldn’t touch her. “All the Old Knives” ends on an apparently positive note, with Celia going back to her family. But when you think about it, Celia has to live her life with the knowledge that she unknowingly killed her savior by trusting the most manipulative organization in the world, i.e., the CIA.