Christopher Nolan is an ambitious filmmaker that with every movie he makes sets out to challenge himself, whether its an unconventional narrative with Memento (2000) or making a non-franchise movie like Inception (2010) at a time when studios rarely greenlight projects not already based on an established property. He is a rare Hollywood studio filmmaker capable of making original big-budgeted movies that make hundreds of millions of dollars. This has given him the clout to make his boldest movie yet – Tenet (2020), a sprawling spy thriller that explores the manipulation of time.
This movie is a testament to the kind of juice Nolan has within the industry. He is able to command a budget over $200 million starring John David Washington, whose casting as the movie’s lead must have raised eyebrows with studio executives as he has no experience with a project of this magnitude or the kind of drawing power of someone like Leonardo DiCaprio or Matthew McConnaughy – actors who helped sell Nolan’s previous ambitious fare. Even the casting of Robert Pattinson as Washington’s co-star was something of a risk as he is no longer the bankable Twilight heartthrob he once was having rejected Hollywood for the most part to appear in foreign and independent films.
Nolan is also employing a deliberately demanding narrative at a time when Hollywood wants to spoon-feed audiences that have been conditioned over decades to expect formulaic product. This may explain why his name factors so prominently in the movie’s marketing as with the absence of a big name movie star he has become the star. Is this something the ambitious filmmaker wanted all along – to be a distinctive brand name like George Lucas or Steven Spielberg? Or, has he bitten off more than he can chew and will Tenet finally end his streak of profitable popcorn movies with more on their minds than car chases and explosions?
The movie begins with an impressively orchestrated sting operation at the National Opera House in Kiev with an unnamed CIA operative known only as the Protagonist (Washington) liberating an exposed spy and obtaining a mysterious device. He’s caught and tortured by Russian agents but manages to take a cyanide pill before divulging any information and dies. Or does he? He wakes up in a hospital bed from a medically-induce coma. Officially declared dead, thus taking him off everyone’s radar, he’s given an assignment by his boss (Martin Donovan): prevent World War III from happening. This is tagged with a bit of advice: “All I have for you is a gesture with a combination with a word: tenet. Use it carefully. It’ll open the right doors but some of the wrong ones, too.” This last line is particularly relevant to understanding what happens later on in the movie.
With the help of a fellow operative named Neil (Pattinson), the Protagonist discovers that the man responsible for triggering World War III is a powerful Russian oligarch by the name of Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh). To get close to him, he befriends his unhappy wife (Elizabeth Debicki) by appealing to her interest in fine art. The rest of the movie plays out the Protagonist’s mission to get to Sator and discover how he’s going to bring about the end of the world and stop it from happening.
Some have complained that Tenet is too complicated and the plot too hard to follow. Is it maybe that we’ve had our senses dulled by an endless stream of mostly mindless big budget blockbusters that do little to challenge us? Nolan provides plenty of exposition rest stops along the way to explain what’s going on, such as the scientist (Clemence Poesy) the protagonist meets early on that gives us a taste of movie’s central conceit: a technology known as “inversion” that sees objects and people traveling backwards in time by reversing their entropy. Or, as she puts it at a gun range where the bullet travels back into the gun instead of hitting its target, “You’re not shooting the bullet, you’re catching it.” He gradually fleshes this concept out over the course of the movie until the last third where, admittedly, things do get a little tough to follow but not enough to ruin the enjoyment of the exciting climax.
Tenet features some of Nolan’s best choreographed action set pieces, from the opening sting in Kiev to the stealing and crashing of a jumbo jet liner into a building that is as impressive as anything in Inception. The opera house sting, in particular, is right out of the Michael Mann playbook in the way it is staged and the use of dense tech lingo as Nolan drops us right into the middle of the action with little to no explanation, reminiscent of the opening sequence in Miami Vice (2006).
John David Washington is excellent as the no-nonsense protagonist who tells someone early on, “I’m not the man they send into negotiate. Or the man they send in to make deals, but I am the man people talk to.” The actor deftly juggles action sequences with dialogue-heavy ones effortlessly. He plays a rather enigmatic fellow with little to no backstory thus forcing us to get know him through his actions in the movie.
He plays well off of Robert Pattinson’s quirky operative. It’s the juicier role and the actor has fun providing much-needed levity at just the right moments in this otherwise po-faced movie, much as Tom Hardy did in Inception. For example, when he and the Protagonist are talking about stealing and crashing a jumbo jet liner, the latter asks, “How big of a plane?” to which the former says sheepishly, “That part is a little dramatic.” The way Pattinson delivers this line is a wonderful bit of subtle comic timing.
Kenneth Branagh plays a vicious Russian billionaire with malevolent intensity. Nolan wisely prolongs his introduction for as long as he can so that the character’s reputation precedes him and our anticipation of his first appearance increases. Sator is a power hungry bully with a crucial edge – he communes with the future for a very specific reason that isn’t the usual mad man villain stuff we’ve come to expect from these kinds of movies.
Ludwig Göransson replaces Nolan’s long-time go-to composer Hans Zimmer and the movie is better for it. With a few exceptions, he eschews Zimmer’s sledgehammer orchestrations for pulsating electronics that provide the movie’s moody backbone and enhance Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography, which adopts a grounded, realistic look reminiscent of Inception.
It’s no secret that one of Nolan’s burning ambitions is to make a Bond movie. He doesn’t need to anymore. With Inception and now Tenet he’s made two spy movies jacked-up on science fiction steroids and done it his way with the kind of creative freedom the Bond producers would never allow. With this movie it feels like he has pushed the techno spy thriller as far as it can go by introducing grand science fiction concepts that turn the genre on its head.
What is Nolan’s ultimate end game? He has reached the point in his career where he has the creative freedom to control every aspect of his movies and so everything in it – the muffled dialogue, the overpowering music and sound effects – is intentional. Nolan wants to be regarded as a serious filmmaker such as Stanley Kubrick or Terrence Malick – two of his cinematic idols – are considered serious auteurs. He lacks that special something that those filmmakers have, transcending genre trappings to create films that are groundbreaking and unique in ways other than on a technical level.
Nolan is at his best when making cerebral spy thrillers like Inception or gritty comic book movies like The Dark Knight trilogy. He doesn’t do touchy-feely sentiment very well, which is why the emotions expressed in Interstellar (2014) felt forced. He’s not a warm filmmaker like Spielberg but more of a puppet-master like Kubrick. Nolan’s movies work best when he uses emotion like a garnish, sprinkling it sparsely over his story. Tenet is a strong, bold effort that invites repeated viewings, not to get past its aggressive sound mix, but to unravel the timelines of the three main characters who are complicated through the plot machinations of the movie.