#11 in my ranking of Christopher Nolan’s films.
I’m gonna be cute. Nolan loves time, so I’m going to review his filmography backwards, watching his filmic technique devolve back to his indie feature film debut.
There’s high concept, and then there’s Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. It’s really two movies in one. The first is a standard spy thriller full of twists and turns. The other is a high concept science fiction action epic that is designed to provide the audience a new action experience unlike they’ve seen before. The complexities of the first piled on top of the complexities of the second create a rather delirious overall experience that becomes hard to grasp as the audience struggles to keep up with details that get spewed in quick order (and, yes, in competition with the rest of the sound design). That being said, I feel like, after only a single viewing, that there’s actually a good amount of fun to be had with this film, and that’s not really what I see talked about a lot. It’s such an effort for audiences to keep up that they largely can’t let the ridiculous action spectacle play out without understanding every beat.
So, The Protagonist (might as well just call him Hero Boy) gets caught up in an adventure with world ending implications against and with people who can move forward and then backwards in time. Called inversion, it’s based on a technology not designed for generations into the future, but the war over its use is being fought today. He is a CIA operative who took his cyanide pill after being captured following an attack on a Ukrainian opera house where he was tasked with extracting an asset and a package. The cyanide pill didn’t kill him, but it did get the CIA to cut him loose on a new mission to find Tenet. With newly acquired knowledge of inversion and the Indian source of the manufactured bullets that had been inverted, he goes from India to the UK to try and get an audience with Sator, a Russian oligarch who seems to be at the center of the mysterious inversion. To get to Sator, our hero must get close to his wife, and in order to do that he has to use knowledge of a fake Goya she appraised as real along with another fake Goya in his possession.
This is a lot, and it’s pretty typical of spy thriller stuff. It’s odd that our hero gets the first steps laid out for him from someone he’s never met before like M would give to Bond in an information dump about 30 minutes into the movie. I think most audiences would be okay with that, but then the science fiction stuff starts coming in, and it’s hard to wrap your brain around. Nolan’s offering us a new way of creating action scenes with moving parts that had always remained stationary, and it’s all tied in with the larger plot. I do wonder if people would have been more accepting of the film if the actual plot had been more straightforward than twisty, limiting the intertwining elements. I imagine that Nolan plotted this all out on a white board in his home office and it makes perfect sense when you create a flow chart, but that’s asking a lot of an audience. And, on top of that, the movie doesn’t offer much beyond its plot.
That being said, the joys of this film are within the complexities of its plot. Revisiting earlier beats from a new point of view with a different sense of understanding of objectives ends up being surprisingly fun. The movie never really treats any of these revisitations like twists of the plot, pretending that there was no way that the audience could figure it out. We’re just shown the events as they unfold, and they end up feeling like fulfillments rather than twists. There’s no dramatic moment as we learn the identity of the woman who jumped off Sator’s yacht. There’s no reveling in the information of who the Protagonist was fighting in the Freeport vaults. I think this matter of fact treatment of the movie’s second half will make the second half play better on subsequent viewings. Nolan trusts his audience to not need a holding hand, even if we may to a certain extent.
The fact that the movie’s protagonist, played by John David Washington, doesn’t feel like a character provides some of the film’s thinness. The fullest character is Elizabeth Debicki’s Kat, Sator’s estranged wife. She has a specific motive, to free herself and her son from Sator’s grasp which she cannot do at the beginning of the film but the protagonist ends up helping with. It almost feels like she should have been the main character, lost in this weird new world as much as the audience was and with a concrete thing that she wants that we can relate to. The protagonist ends up going through the plot because he must, and as a vehicle for this plot he’s fine. However, it’s a thin reed on which to grasp.
Technically, the movie’s as well made as you could imagine a Christopher Nolan production would be this late in his career. It looks fantastic and the trippy action scenes with opposing flows of time are just simply wonderful to look at. There’s so much detail and so much going on that when we get to the final battle, the audience can feel confident that the controlled chaos is playing out coherently. The actual objectives may need some explaining, but the action to get to that MacGuffin does not. And there’s the source of the movie’s fun.
No, this is not some deep exercise in the concept of time. Nolan uses time to create a new kind of action sequence, and he does that quite well. Everything else around that is thin but entertaining enough spy stuff. You may need a flow chart to figure out the details of the film, but I don’t think you need one to enjoy what the movie has to offer.