Christopher Nolan has often expressed his affinity for the James Bond franchise. Well, what if he made the most complex Bond film of all time, one that at times seems simultaneously thrilling and incomprehensible? Tenet, his latest feature, feels exactly like the Bond flick he’d direct. Clinical, arresting, visually imposing, lacking empathy, but doubling down on expository catharsis.
Tenet is the most mysterious film of 2020, so what exactly is it about? Well, after a kinetic and auditory opening (seriously, you will know in the first five minutes whether you’re on board with this movie), we learn about this world through the eyes of the Protagonist (John David Washington). He’s a Special Agent who, after a training mission, learns of project Tenet. Tenet operates based on the discovery of time travel – except they’re not in control of the time travel. Someone from the future, who and why we don’t know, has discovered how to invert people and objects, such as bullets, to effectively move backwards in time. Its not the act of just transporting someone to a specific date; think of it as a rewind button, and the inverted subjects are the video. Oh and yes, our main character’s name is actually Protagonist. It seems Nolan has shed any remaining subtlety in regards to how his films are metaphors for the filmmaking process, and finally just said “Fuck it.”
From there, the Protagonist is sent on a mission to discover who are the players engrossed in this mystery, and what is it all leading to. He’s told he’s been assigned to prevent something that could be even more catastrophic than World War III. From there, the Bond comparisons mount; exotic espionage missions, a maniacal villain, a love interest that’s also the villain’s wife, and an evil scheme that could potentially destroy the world. The difference is the time traveling plot device, which allows Nolan to manipulate what the characters know, and what the audience knows at any given time.
Luckily, the film’s rules are largely accessible and easy to follow. The opening scene is purposely confusing, but then we’re treated to one of the most engaging expository scenes in recent memory. When the Protagonist is given the rundown of Tenet, it works because he, and we, get to see the time travel live as it is explained to him. Nolan’s handle on the visual language of the film is superb. At one point, while our characters are in a car, we see a broken side mirror in the corner of the screen. We know, based on the movie’s rules, that what caused the break actually hasn’t happened yet, but it’s an alert that something is going to happen.
Much has been made about this movie’s plot, with some complaints pointing to the film being too confusing. To be clear, yes you will have to pay attention to this movie to understand what the blue hell is going on, but that should be a good thing. Perhaps we are too used to leisure content, in which we can play on our phones and still get the gist of what’s going on in whatever we’re watching. Tenet is aggressively not a phone movie. It’s anti-Netflix, anti-pause-and-restart. It’s a film that demands attentive commitment from start to finish, but that shouldn’t be treated as a negative idea.
But as much attention that has been paid to the film’s complicated screenplay, that shouldn’t distract from what is an outstanding all-around production. Since as early as The Dark Knight trilogy, Nolan’s films have been visual marvels, partially due to his commitment to shoot on film, his use of IMAX, and preference for practical effects. Tenet is as much an action film as it is a mind-bender, and it’s the one realm where Nolan may actually be underrated.
No, he’s not the Wachowskis, McTiernan, Cameron, or George Miller, but you can’t deny that Nolan’s action portfolio is unique and ever-evolving. He’s always trying to think outside of the box – he can’t just do a simple car chase. No, he has to do a scene where four vehicles fly down a highway while they’re smashed up against each other. This visual creativity during his set pieces belies his standard coverage in dialogue-driven scenes (he still regresses to his tendency of using the bland shot/reverse shot pattern). Basic shots are often transfixing, like a wide shot of our heroes in a field. It seems Nolan is at his best outdoors, where he can play with the limits of the IMAX camera. Indoors, his coverage is always standard.
The cast is one of the most star-studded of the year, from burgeoning franchise players to Academy Award nominated actors. Kenneth Branaugh once again does his inexplicable routine of disappearing into a role. He has to chew the scenery as an unsavory, angry villain, but does so adeptly to the point that he’s barely recognizable. Elizabeth Debicki plays his wife in the continuing trend of underwritten women in Nolan films. Yet, her performance is sympathetic and sincere, making us care for her predicament as well as her goals. She’s the emotional center of the film, bringing plausibility to an absurd plot with grace, never leaving us to question how ridiculous it all is.
Meanwhile, the Robert Pattinson-ssance continues! He’s a natural leading man, but he plays the sidekick role well, never over-acting or doing anything too showy that would take away from John David Washington. Speaking of which, the junior Washington continues to be one of the most charismatic performers in Hollywood. He’s cool, calm, and debonair. This isn’t a coming out party – he’s already arrived, and at times he carries the film.
It’s difficult to refer to the star of the film, Washington, as the scene stealer – unless you consider Christopher Nolan to be the actual star. Many of Nolan’s detractors will be quick to bring up his faults. But no filmmaker is perfect, and Nolan in particular is admirable not because he is flawless, but because his flaws are greatly outsized by his enormous strengths. This is not the best film of his career, but it’s a reminder that what’s an average film in his filmography would be the Magnum Opus for most other directors.