“To even know its true nature is to lose.”
Tenet disappoints like no other Christopher Nolan film, and that’s a more clinical and less emotional statement than it sounds. At his best (The Prestige, Memento, The Dark Knight, Interstellar), Nolan plays with structure to realize a unique and sometimes overwhelming emotional experience, but Tenet hints at that emotional experience without bringing it to fruition. As Neil (Robert Pattinson) says at the end, “you’re only halfway through,” and that sense of wistful loss extended to my experience of watching it. (Interstellar does much more with presenting a fragment of a master narrative but a complete emotional arc; so, in a different way, does Memento.) Nolan plays with structure here to create some dazzling filmed-in-camera set pieces and his usual converging timelines at climactic moments, but the best of Tenet is a powerfully suggested but not fully realized theme of the absence of a sense of place, or better said the sense of an absent place: what J. G. Ballard called the ten miles surrounding an airport that are the same all over the world, and the non-citizens of that non-place.
Nolan is a huge fan of James Bond films, and has said although he watches one every year, he didn’t do so while filming Tenet, wanting not to make a Bond film but his own version of a Bond film. Many Bond elements are present here, at degrees of success that range from “cool” to “what the exact fuck are you doing?”: the expensive clothes, cars, and planes, the lab-coated Explainer, the British Secret Service, the assistant spy, the world-destroying plot, the villain and his wife/girlfriend. Bond films are always international thrillers, giving audiences a travelogue along with the action, filled with pretty vistas and exotic interiors, a last tour of the Empire where the sun never sets. Ian Fleming’s novels and the films always had at least a suggestion of nostalgia for the British Empire and its white men who ran the world, with Bond as the last in that Empire’s line of adventurers, historical and fictional, from Cecil Rhodes to Harry Flashman.
Although Tenet has its share of establishing shots (courtesy of Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema) of international locations that establish not so much location or even beauty but wealth, there are many more images and settings that aren’t international but transnational, belonging to no country and no history: freeways, oceans, yachts, shipping containers, airports, “freeports” (storage facilities at airports, outside of customs), the “secret cities” of the former Soviet Union. Michael Caine tells John David Washington’s Protagonist “no offense, in this world, where someone is claiming to be a billionaire, Brooks Brothers won’t cut it,” ignoring any question of race but noting that the markers of class are dealbreakers. Everyone here focuses only on their work; the Protagonist, pointedly, doesn’t drink on the job, so no martinis here (even Neil just drinks vodka tonics); this is an opulent world populated by ascetics. Tenet may be the first huge-budget thriller set entirely in the neoliberal world, and all that is solid really might melt into air before it’s over.
I’m gonna get SPOILERY now. Make sure you’ve seen it, or plan on seeing it and going through the nearest turnstile afterwards.
Tenet has a lot of dazzling setpieces and some strong performances (Pattison is the standout, although Elizabeth Debicki deserves praise for doing the best she can with a disaster of a character), but nothing in it quite matches the power of its second major sequence. After a tense raid on a Kiev opera house (using some of the spatial relationships of Michael Mann’s Blackhat, more on this later), the Protagonist gets betrayed, tortured, and suicides himself; the title burns in over his “death.” And then he wakes up on a ship (the suicide pill was fake) with Martin Donovan initiating him into his new world (“welcome to the afterlife”), giving him the code word “tenet” and its accompanying gesture (the linked fingers are a cool touch, because it’s something that one can do naturally; you don’t notice someone’s doing it unless you’re looking), and pointing him towards his mission (“your duty transcends national interest. This is about survival. . .everyone’s.”) The Protagonist takes a quick boat ride and spends an unspecified few days in a wind turbine with a gun and snack bars.
The sequence is haunting, and haunts the rest of the film. To join the Tenet organization, it’s not enough to accept death, one has to have actively chosen it, and Tenet’s most powerful theme is what it would be like to live that way, severed from all ties, national, political, personal, even the biological will to survive. The theme is present in Donovan’s line reading “that test you passed? Not everyone does,” needing nothing more than that to reveal that he didn’t. It’s present in von Hoytema’s shot down the shaft of the turbine, a space that could never occur in nature, and it’s present in the calm, instinctive way Washington works out and checks his gun while waiting. (Nolan gives great storytelling here, each shot clear and hinting at what comes next, with no words at all.) It’s present a few minutes later when our first (second, counting Donovan) Explainer (Clémence Poésy) tells the Protagonist “no small talk. Nothing that might reveal who we are or what we do,” which, as our own Nerd has said, is one of the key lines in the entire movie. And eventually, in the climactic scene, it’s part of the plot; the reversal of time means that Neil heads to a death that’s already happened. (The promise Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Ives makes to kill the Protagonist is just as certain.) Calling the protagonist of the movie the Protagonist can come across as an affectation, but it’s true to this theme: these are people who have no identities, only their role.
Of course, this calls up Mann’s protagonists, but the essential difference between the filmmakers’ settings is also the essential difference between their characters: Mann’s characters live in cities, often particular cities, compared to Nolan’s agents of everywhere and nowhere. Mann always shoots in particularlized locations, often searching out unique cityscapes, clubs, apartment buildings, transit centers, diners, even people (a shout-out here to Heat’s Console TV Man, a specific person in a specific urban ecosystem), and Collateral’s best guest star, the Coyote. (Probably no longer with us. 😭.) The particularity of those locations extend to the backstories he develops with his actors: in Collateral, Vincent comes from Gary, Indiana, Max from Ladera Heights; and of course, all of Mann’s characters come from a particular profession, with all the locality and training that implies, and that’s what gives them their weight, the density of real things that make them both archetypes and achingly real people. (Perhaps the moment that crystallizes this aspect of Mann most completely is Frank’s collage in Thief, filled with definite images for his idealized desires, and the space for the woman who will be in his life.)
Interestingly, Nolan’s earlier films had a similar urban specificity, if not as extensive. Memento takes place entirely in Los Angeles and is clear on that point; Nolan had a similar eye for sets there, describing one of Leonard’s residences as a motel designed by M. C. Escher. The Prestige takes place in a well-defined London, and The Dark Knight’s Gotham City takes the architecture, faces, and some of the politics of Chicago to create another place with the density of reality. (Cinematographer Wally Pfister, with a talent for close camera work and an appreciation of a slightly dirty image, was as necessary to realize Nolan’s vision in this phase of his career as van Hoytema would be now. Son of Griff has noted that van Hoytema has a talent for shooting the shiny, anonymous sets of Tenet and Interstellar.) Seen this way, Inception becomes a transitional work, featuring Dom Cobb as a stateless protagonist who wants nothing so much as to come home, and places of the imagination mixed up with real cities.
Heat was the clearest demonstration of Mann’s recurring theme of the conflict between professionalism and other values, especially romanticism; one way of reading Nolan’s work is through the anxiety of influence: Nolan takes this aspect of Mann and projects his characters into situations so extreme, even unheard of, that the commitment to a code becomes everything. (As in Mann, the secondary characters who have already committed can make an impression beyond their screentime; here, the first rank is Poésy’s quiet confidence and intelligence next to Taylor-Johnson’s absolute physical certainty and toughness: no trace here at all of the youthful, naive Kick-Ass.) In this view, Interstellar is probably Nolan’s best “strong misreading” of Mann, putting its characters in conflict between their ability to love and what it takes to save the world, or at least create a new one from the genomes of the old. Tenet’s strongest moments come at the beginning because they suggest what it’s like to live outside of anyplace and purged of any value except the mission; what it would be truly like, as Interstellar suggested, to work for the entire species, not “those in our line of sight.” It looks lonelier than the empty planets of Interstellar, what it’s like once you “walk out in thirty seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner,” what it’s like to “live as if you’ve already died.“
Tenet also picks up on one of Interstellar’s structures, one that recurs in Nolan’s work: the essential lie. Here, it takes the form of the deceit that’s the defining aspect of espionage (“policy is to suppress”), but this is another genre element that Nolan pushes to an extreme: people can’t be told what they’ve done because that might prevent them from doing it. (Tenet could do with more of these giddy, um, tenets.) Neil doesn’t reveal that the Protagonist fought himself coming out of the Oslo turnstile because “if I’d told you and you acted differently, who knows?” Compartmentalization, “knowledge divided,” has been a great theme of the spy genre and has been exploited by authors from John le Carré to James Ellroy, on levels from the institutional to the personal, but Nolan makes it nearly existential, like Memento’s Leonard Shelby ungrounded from his reality because he can never remember his actions. (Nolan works this on a narrative level too, with a rough three-act structure that corresponds to our knowledge: 1) objects can be reversed; 2) people can be reversed; 3) everything can be reversed.) In Tenet, there’s a recurring motif that to fully know means death, sometimes said explicitly by the characters but really landing in the ending, where Neil realizes he’s heading not just to certain death but to a death that’s already happened. Neil and the Protagonist have Tenet’s most moving relationship, and the clearest plot: the Protagonist’s apprenticeship.
As the Protagonist, John David Washington could bring this off; I’ve seen criticism of his performance but the blame lies elsewhere, with Nolan for not crafting the role to the actor. (Nolan has enough power now to get the cast he wants and use it correctly.) Washington brings a good physicality to the role (he trained to play professional football before shifting to acting, and the man can throw a body with authority) but also a hesitation, a way of not being comfortable with what he’s asked to do, that the story fails to exploit. (When Neil asks him “would you kidnap a child?” as part of a break-in plan, there’s a sadness to Washington’s no, as if the Protagonist knows the only answer is yes.) Nolan writes the Protagonist as too much of a straightforward badass, and I suspect that’s why Washington comes across as weak on occasion. (I also suspect that Nolan wrote this too often as if Washington’s dad had the role.) Washington neatly plays some ornaments where we see a trace of a personality, someone with a name, that got submerged into the Protagonist; his improvised line “I ordered my hot sauce an hour ago” is, as Mars Blackmon sez, very Black of him. It’s both funny and oddly touching, but it’s just a moment. He might have been able to do more if the plot asked for it, but Tenet too conventionally follows the Bond genre here; with the entire existence of the world at stake, the Protagonist never has to make or take any morally challenging decisions or actions.
Moving outward from Washington, the theme stays present but fails because Nolan hasn’t thought it out with sufficient rigor, and the actors either have nothing to play or get it wrong. It fits with the theme that a man who has no faith and no attachments can only see himself as a god (Ian McEwan used this in Atonement); it’s compelling that that man could take on destroying the entire world (Danny Boyle used this in an underrated aspect of the underrated Sunshine), but Kenneth Branagh’s Andrei Sator making a speech with just these points doesn’t make it work when the rest of his stereotypically hammy performance goes against them.* What was needed here was detachment, not Branagh’s theatrical, spitting, snarling rage; think Dr. Manhattan, not Ernst Blofeld. Branagh recognizes that he’s in a Bond movie, but Sator, despite his wealth, isn’t a Bond villain: at most, they wanted to rule the world, not wipe it out.
As his kept wife, Debicki’s Catherine/Cat should have been the strongest contrast to the other characters: a woman with a specific origin and history, a specific, non-negotiable interest in her son, and Nolan fails to create any kind of consistent character for her to play, leaving Debicki to try and hold it together with nothing but her presence; it’s a testimony to both her talent and Nolan’s incompetence that the former can’t make up for the latter. (le Carré had a Catherine/Cat in a similar situation in The Honourable Schoolboy, and that is not a comparison Nolan should invite.) Repeatedly threatened by Sator, repeatedly betrayed by the Protagonist, Cat does pretty much nothing except what she’s told, except when it’s something incredibly, disastrously stupid. (Both are attempts to kill Sator; the first doesn’t succeed and makes one wonder how the story can keep going; and the second. . .someone needed to yell YOU HAD ONE JOB! at her.) Just once, I hoped, let her be playing some kind of game, let her be lying just as much as the other characters, let her have her own agenda, hell, let her tell the Protagonist “fuck off ya non-tall no-hedge-fund-having wannabe”. . .and it never materializes. Nolan has run into trouble with making the women in his movie full characters, but here he seems determined to prove his critics right–the Bond films don’t give many models for good characters among its villains’ wives and girlfriends.
Cat is just the strongest example of Tenet’s consistent disappointment: the most interesting thematic material never gets fully developed, never gets integrated into the backwards-time hook of the plot. (Returning to the Mann comparison, in its transnational setting, rigorous and inventive action, and fumbled relationships, even its critical reception where it’s largely not liked but considered by some his purest work, this is Nolan’s Blackhat.) Sadly, that reduces the hook to a mere gimmick rather than the structures of Interstellar’s time dilation, Inception’s dream levels, or Memento’s anterograde amnesia and hairpin plot; it makes for some great setpieces, but not the cinematic and truly moving experience that Nolan can give us. There’s a poignancy here, but not from Neil telling us it’s half a story, it’s from a movie half-made.
*It also doesn’t help that Sator’s whole plan rests on burying a device that will be dug up in the distant future, and the suspense of the third act of the film depends on Team Tenet stopping him, when they could just, y’know, dig it up themselves. It’s far from the only plot hole here (feel encouraged to mention others in the comments), and symptomatic of Tenet’s other big problem: Nolan trying to create an intellectual stupid action movie, and coming up with something too complex for its kineticism and not rigorous enough to stand up to rewatching. If Point Break and Primer can be combined, this wasn’t it.