Christopher Nolan revisited: Tenet (2020)

John David Washington in Tenet
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One of Christopher Nolan’s most complex films – and one with the hardest dialogue to hear – Tenet is also his most self-aware movie.

Tenet is the first film in which Christopher Nolan winks to the audience that he, too, understands what a Christopher Nolan film is.

How else to explain that John David Washington’s lead character is not just referenced to as The Protagonist, but he describes himself as such at multiple points during the film. Washington’s mysterious, super-trained, probable CIA spy describes people he fights as ‘antagonists’ and positions himself directly at the centre of a narrative in which Nolan culminates everything you would expect from him as a director.

Tenet is a high concept idea which glances toward the realm of science-fiction, mind-bending physics, powerful technology, concepts of futurism born from theoretical ideas, relentlessly thundering sound design and practical effects where possible. If Nolan appreciates he is making the most ‘Nolan’ movie ever, in contrast to Dunkirk which eschewed his penchant for dialogue driven escapism, then The Protagonist ultimately has a level of hyper-awareness core to his nature.

This is key to Tenet’s palindromic construction, one replete with a narrative that bends in on itself thanks to the fascinating ‘Nolanian’ gambit of ‘time inversion’ or a level of reversed ‘entropy’. Don’t try to understand it” suggests Clemence Poesy’s scientist early on, and that’s Nolan speaking to his audience. Just go with it. Allow the inversion to pull you along because it does, for the most part, make sense by the end.

Nolan explains his process behind the development of the film:

I think there’s a really productive relationship between the medium and the physical reality of time and the idea of time that we all live in. So I’ve been dealing with this in my films for years and I had this visual notion of a bullet that’s in a wall, being sucked out of the wall, and into the barrel of the gun it was fired from, and I put the image in Memento, my early film, as a metaphorical idea or a symbol of the structural notion of the film. But I always harbored this desire to create a story in which the characters would have to deal with that as a physical reality. And that eventually grew over the years into Tenet.

Many will tell you that Tenet is a puzzle box that leaves you baffled and while, granted, several rewatches might be necessary to get it all straight, as ever in a Nolan film the pieces are in front of us to be observed. His continued ‘prestige’, his belief that we want to be fooled, is the key to how he constructs his pictures. In this case, however, The Protagonist — as the inversion himself of an archetype — is clued into the game. He may not understand it all until the end but he knows, at least, that he has a role to play in the grand tapestry of the tale.

With one or two notable exceptions, every Christopher Nolan film is driven by a protagonist with either a gift, secret or a trick. Dunkirk might be the only film directly lacking such a figure, and Interstellar’s lead character is fuelled by alternative drives given the emotional centricity of that picture. All of Nolan’s other films are front-loaded by a male figure either emboldened or compromised by his own unique aspects, whether Memento’s Leonard Shelby experiencing the mystery of his wife’s death in reverse (a film which Tenet arguably owes the greatest debt to), or The Prestige’s Alfred Borden pulling off his ultimate deception, through to Inception’s Cobb mastering the world of dreaming as a means of escaping the trauma of his wife’s death.

John David Washington and Robert Pattinson in Tenet

In each of these films, Nolan’s protagonist holds all the cards as a means of decoding the narrative. Cobb’s plan of incepting is key (and, again, Inception is another Nolan movie without which Tenet would not exist), Alfred in The Prestige holds the secret to the meaning of the entire story, and in Memento the truth about Leonard’s wife is locked inside his own fragmented memory.

In their own way, all of these protagonists are the vessels of Nolan’s showmanship – they just don’t realise it. The Protagonist, so named, does. Played with suave relish by Washington, regularly offering up his father’s confident swagger, he understands his place as an ‘inverted’ James Bond, the solitary hero who must save the world from, in this case, “preventing World War Three.” He is finely tailored after receiving a briefing, in all but name, from a posh British government figure (an aged Michael Caine in his requisite cameo, one so winking his character is even called ‘Sir Michael’) in a London paean to the elitist Establishment.

His ‘Felix Leiter’ is the enigmatic, almost foppish Brit, Neil (played with louche relish by Robert Pattinson), who furnishes him with links, connections and support. The ‘girl’ appears in the graceful form of Elizabeth Debicki’s Katherine Barton, a beautiful art appraiser born from wealth and trapped, with her son, in a violent, loveless marriage to the villain, Kenneth Branagh’s snarling, post-Soviet billionaire arms dealer Andrei Sator, a man able seemingly to commune with the future.

Previously: Revisiting Christopher Nolan’s Memento
Previously: Revisiting Chistopher Nolan’s Insomnia
Previously: Revisiting Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins
Previously: Revisiting Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige
Previously: Revisiting Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight
Previously: Revisiting Christopher Nolan’s Inception
Previously: Revisiting Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises
Previously: Revisiting Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar
Previously: Revisiting Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk

The traditional Bond character constructs are visible, down even to a glamorous global travelogue which moves from Kiev to Oslo to Mumbai to the Amalfi Coast, with stops elsewhere, and a penchant for explosive set pieces including an intended heist of a ‘freeport’ (a staging post for wealthy goods that avoids tax at various points across the globe), the crashing of a stationary airplane, or a frenetic car chase on the streets of Estonia.

These are all recognisable tropes that Nolan works to invert, as he does with the story of natural entropy being reversed as part of a devastating plan from unknown forces in the distant future. The Protagonist believes he is playing one role, an established part audiences understand from a range of pictures within this sub-genre, when the plot steadily reveals — to us and him — that he is playing quite another. Part of the joy of Tenet is the complexity of these interactions which, as is often the case with Nolan, disguise a much simpler narrative construct than is first apparent. As Nolan said in an interview with NPR:

The interesting thing in movies is, you know, looking at the thriller genre in particular, you’re not meant to understand every single aspect. You’re meant to go on the journey, pass through the maze, understand the things you need to understand for the stakes of the scene you’re in, and then you get to the end of the movie and you’ve been on a journey and you understand how you got there. That’s the key.

Thematically, Tenet is perfectly in step with Nolan’s consistent anxieties about humanity’s path to self-destruction. His Batman films suggested this in microcosm through Gotham, depicting a three-part tale of a city which falls to chaos and revolution without the symbolic power of a selfless hero. Inception’s entire fragmented dream world is constructed on the collapse of family values and ideals, be it Cobb’s disturbed wife or Cillian Murphy’s dysfunctional relationship with his billionaire father.

Robert Pattinson and John David Washington in Tenet.

Interstellar’s Cooper ventures out into space and appears to have left behind a world self-destroyed by climate change and human abuse, before himself falling prey to another temporal gambit – time dilation. Nolan’s hope, visible in Interstellar, appears to have decayed in the years since if Tenet is anything to go by. In his latest picture, the future actively seeks to destroy us by reversing entropy, by wiping the slate clean. And we, as Sator puts it, are to blame. “Because their oceans rose and their rivers ran dry.” Nolan certainly prescribes here to the concept of time operating in a linear fashion, despite the curved, inward nature of a story which flips back on itself.

“What happened, happened,” Pattinson’s Neil reminds The Protagonist and the audience, despite Nolan winking at the idea that we are able to make our own fate, but the message is as nebulous as the muffled dialogue thanks to powerful, at times overbearing sound design (perhaps the film’s only significant fault). Paradoxes abound, time ripples, and Tenet’s construction seems designed to suggest that we should question the construct we have placed for ourselves as receptors of narrative to rely on a hero.

This is probably the closest Nolan will ever come to a Bond film, and don’t expect him to helm a Marvel film any time soon. His scepticism of the lone saviour is all too apparent now. In truth, Nolan has never believed in a superhero trope. The Dark Knight trilogy actively deconstructs Batman and turns him into a symbol representing collective strength – only the city united in The Dark Knight Rises manage to stop Bane and his revolutionaries. In Tenet’s world of shadows and warriors who will forever remain unknown in saving the world, it is an even starker message.

The Protagonist’s CIA informer (Martin Donovan, who last cropped up for Nolan in Insomnia) talks of a “Cold War, cold as ice”, code phrases such as “we live in a twilight world”are swapped, and Nolan positions the world of Tenet — represented by that singular word, which itself suggests personal as well as global ideology — as a hidden struggle. Everything is covert. Everything is compartmentalised. Hence why Sator is so openly repulsive, a ‘90s Bond villain galore. His vicious encapsulation of Russian avarice, born from post-Soviet opportunity, feels almost intentionally hammy. “It’s very gratifying to watch a man you don’t like try to pull his own balls out of his throat before he chokes.” It’s no longer the villains of our world who must be subtle and hide, it’s our heroes.

The result of this construction is a frequently inventive, thrilling and intense take on the traditional espionage drama. This isn’t post-Bond or post-Bourne as much as it feels post-modern Nolan, less a pastiche of his own canon and more a fulcrum of everything he believes and worries about, globally, distilled into one geo-political, almost meta-textual romp through world-ending stakes, abusive relationships, and attractive, shadowy protagonists (as there is more than just one). Protagonists who realise the limitations of their own place in a story which bends physics and the fabric of time to depict a sphere which does not even realise it is heading toward oblivion. Tenet isn’t political in the way Nolan’s Batman films were. It simply wants to enhance while deconstructing a very well worn, well trod sub-genre that has rarely felt so, at times hilariously, audacious.

Tenet has confused and alienated audiences as much as it has bewitched them since it arrived. People will come around on it eventually, I suspect. It’s a vivacious thrill ride that understands the seemingly impossible to fathom world it plays in. It’s Nolan squared. I wondered at the time what he might see in his career beyond this, in an ever precarious future. His response was to confront the greatest existential fear of the 20th, and maybe still even the 21st century – the mechanism of our own mass destruction.

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