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Tenet

1,170 words

Christopher Nolan is one of my favorite living filmmakers. Tenet is Nolan’s new sci-fi espionage thriller. Tenet is highly imaginative and visually striking, filmed on locations in Denmark, Estonia, India, Italy, Norway, and the UK. Its cast includes Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Michael Caine, and Kenneth Branagh.

But Tenet is not Nolan’s best work, for two main reasons. First, to say the plot is hard to follow would be a compliment. Second, John David Washington, who is simply known as the Protagonist, is the weakest leading man in any Nolan film.

Nolan is known for plots that are complex and intricately structured, often employing science fiction elements that strain plausibility. Just think of Memento, Batman Begins, The Prestige, Inception, and Interstellar. Even Dunkirk, which is a relatively straightforward World War II movie, has a highly complex narrative structure, with three parallel plotlines that only sync up in the last minutes of the film.

Memento, Inception, and Interstellar arguably cross the line into being simply incoherent. But there’s no argument about Tenet. On first viewing, large chunks of the plot make no sense, and I suspect that repeated viewings won’t iron out the wrinkles. What is worse, in the case of Memento, Inception, and Interstellar, the characters and drama are so compelling that one can forgive the occasional lapse, but not so with Tenet.

The central science fiction element of Tenet is time travel. People from the future are trying to change the past, i.e., our present. But the novel wrinkle is that certain objects can move backwards against the regular course of time. It starts out seeming fake and dumb, but as the movie progresses, there is a real payoff with brilliantly imaginative reversal sequences, in which people encounter themselves emerging from the future and interacting with them in reverse time. The word tenet is a palindrome, spelled the same way forwards and backwards, which is a nice metaphor for the characters undergoing temporal inversions. These mind-blowing sequences are structured with the intricacy of Escher’s most paradoxical drawings. They’ll leave you simply speechless. They might even make sense, after three or four viewings.

But the most inscrutable plot elements in Tenet are the motives of the main characters: the good guy, played by John David Washington; the bad guy, Andrei Sator, an evil Russian oligarch played by Kenneth Branagh; the femme fatale, Kat, his estranged wife, played by the elegant Elizabeth Debicki; and the mysterious people from the future, who set everything in motion.

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It is no spoiler to say that the movie is a conflict between people who want to destroy and save the world. This much is clear in the trailers. Early on, there’s talk of a Third World War, but that gets dropped for something much worse.

But given this conflict, none of the characters behave rationally. The plan of the people from the future is staggeringly evil and utterly insane, since it would not only fail to solve their alleged problem but make their very existence impossible. Andrei Sator’s behavior toward his wife, his son, and the whole planet makes no sense either. Kat’s behavior is baffling, especially when she commits a pointless and unnecessary act of spite that might literally destroy the world. And given the gravity of the Protagonist’s mission, his sentimentality toward Kat makes no sense either. There are half-a-dozen points when a sensible agent would have abandoned her to pursue the greater good.

The only weak link in the cast is leading man John David Washington. I confess that current events in the US have given me a powerful case of Negro fatigue, but I tried to be objective. There are fine black actors out there, and Nolan has cast two of them, Morgan Freeman and David Gyasi.

But John David Washington is not leading man material. He’s shortish. He lacks charisma and physical presence. His voice is weak. He’s not handsome. (He’s very dark, but also oddly racially indeterminate, with a thin nose and strange beard that make him look South Asian.) Beyond that, he didn’t really sell the character or his lines. He can’t do sophisticated. We are supposed to think he can glance in a bag and see that a sketch is by Goya, but it comes off as a joke. When he dresses up, he looks comical, like a pygmy oligarch. He orders “expresso.” He’s the weakest character in any scene he’s in — and he’s in most of them — sucking in the rest of the movie around him like a black hole.

I wonder if Nolan felt pressure from the industry to take on a black leading man. If so, he should have resisted. John David Washington is an affirmative action-hero, who has risen to his level of incompetence based on race and family connections. His father is Denzel Washington, who might have done this role justice 30 years ago. (He was excellent in Malcolm X.)

As the movie wore on (it is two-and-a-half hours), I started mentally recasting the main role. The actor would have to be physically commanding and dynamic plus soulful to sell his strange attachment to Kat. Daniel Craig could have done it a decade ago. Tom Hardy is the right age and would have been a compelling choice. Based on his performance in Blade Runner 2049, Ryan Gosling also would have been excellent. But it was not to be. There is one bright side, though. This is a James Bond-style role, and if the folks at Eon Productions see this, there will never be a black James Bond.

Speaking of Bond, now that Daniel Craig is retiring, Eon needs to hire Nolan to direct Tom Hardy as the next James Bond.

If I were grading Tenet, I would give it a B+ overall, with plenty of honorable mentions for technical details. Every Nolan fan will want to see Tenet, but average moviegoers will find it long, confusing, and dramatically uninvolving. Thus I doubt Tenet will be as successful as Nolan’s recent string of blockbusters. Indeed, Tenet is my candidate for Nolan’s worst film — or perhaps I should say his “least good” one. Tenet is a far more ambitious project than his early films like Following, Memento, and Insomnia. It is also more ambitious than The Prestige, which many people find dramatically underwhelming. But in terms of plot and performances, all of these films are better realized than Tenet.

Christopher Nolan remains one of our most visionary filmmakers, but with Tenet his reach exceeded his grasp.

The Unz Review, August 26, 2020

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19 Comments

  1. nick
    Posted August 28, 2020 at 5:22 am | Permalink

    dunkirk was a load of utter bollox.the finale spitfire “glide” was truly laughable as was the burning scene.if you are going to spend so much on cgi, then spend it wisely.

  2. Tye Rogerson
    Posted August 28, 2020 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    How did you even watch this? Are movie theaters open again?

    Also, I could not agree more!
    “Speaking of Bond, now that Daniel Craig is retiring, Eon needs to hire Nolan to direct Tom Hardy as the next James Bond.”

    • Lord Shang
      Posted August 29, 2020 at 2:33 am | Permalink

      Hardy’s a good actor, but not cool or good looking enough to be Bond. Bonds either have to be tough (looking) or handsome. Connery and Craig fit the former; Moore and Brosnan the latter. Actually, Connery was the best because he looked the most like Bond should look; also, he had the most masculine charisma. Moore and Brosnan were too foppish, fine for ordering martinis or playing baccarat in a tux, but unconvincing as an actual spy/hero (as portrayed in the books). Craig does the tough guy convincingly, but he’s “all about the mission” – he lacks the screen Bond’s rakish charm and seductive ‘savoir faire’.

      The next Bond will be someone like Chris Hemsworth. I hope not Idris Elba, but in BLMania times, who knows?

      • Greg Johnson
        Posted August 30, 2020 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

        Check out Hardy’s role in Inception and then tell me he is not Bond material.

        • Lord Shang
          Posted August 31, 2020 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

          I saw Inception in the theater a decade ago, but only remember certain DiCaprio scenes (and the bus going off the bridge). I tend to have a poor time recalling movies with non-linear plots (I loved Interstellar, however, and recall it very well – but then it was more recent, and I saw it 3x in theater).
          Maybe I see it again sometime.

          I’ve seen Hardy in other movies since, like the Mad Max sequel and Dunkirk. Good actor, not my idea of Bond. Not sure who is.

          • Lord Shang
            Posted August 31, 2020 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

            Let me add: Chris Hemsworth is much more Bond looking, for both the rake and the tough guy. Much taller than Hardy, and half a dozen years younger, too (so longer screen life). Also, an even bigger international star. Assuming Bonds have to be British or Commonwealth, I can’t think of anyone else (but then my knowledge of current actors is certainly not comprehensive).

  3. baw5xc
    Posted August 28, 2020 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    I thought the same thing about the lead when I first saw the trailer. I couldn’t quite explain it but I felt like he was an affirmative action hire. There are several black actors who wouldn’t have made think that, so it was a poor choice.

  4. Stephen Phillips
    Posted August 28, 2020 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    I’m not expert, but I liked both Inception and Memento. Hard to believe Memento is 20 years old already, and still one movie I would see again.

  5. OctavianProscription
    Posted August 28, 2020 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

    Did anybody else ever get the feeling that Tom Hardys character in Inception was based on Mark Steyn? Or is the worldly, witty, well dressed Commonwealther actually a type?

  6. Hugo Adrian
    Posted August 28, 2020 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

    So you have a movie about time travel, a reference to Goya (most famous for his painting of Saturn eating his own child), and a villain with the last name Sator. Do you think this is a reference to Saturn/Cronus, and if so, what other Greco-Roman mythological allusions might there be?

  7. Lord Shang
    Posted August 29, 2020 at 2:47 am | Permalink

    The saga of Washington fils is one I find hard to believe. He has nothing of his father’s obvious charisma, or talent. As Lynch notes, he doesn’t even have Denzel’s not magnificent but acceptable leading man’s build (which is odd, because acc to Wiki, he was a seriously excellent athlete, even having a shot at the NFL; but he seems puny onscreen). I saw him in “Blackkklansman”, and was not impressed (of course, I don’t understand why his co-star, the ugly and usually boring Adam Driver, is a major movie star, either). He’s very unmemorable: that same year I also saw him in the Robert Redford film The Old Man and the Gun – and didn’t even realize he was the same guy as in Blackkklansman!

    He is not leading man material. But small kudos to the father for surprisingly giving the boy a decent American name.

    • Dazz
      Posted August 30, 2020 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

      Adam Driver has become a star because Hollywood assumed he was Jewish…it’s a similar situation with Jason Biggs (Italian descent but plays Jews) who even Woody Allen cast as his surrogate…no doubt discovery he wasn’t Jewish correlates with less major roles, but Driver had the fortune to become world known thus secure due to Star Wars.

  8. kc
    Posted August 29, 2020 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    I have not seen the movie but recognized the words TENET and SATOR as being part of a larger palindrome known at the Sator Square. It has been found at archeological sites throughout the world with the oldest dating to Pompeii.

    It looks like this:

    SATOR
    AREPO
    TENET
    OPERA
    ROTAS

    Just curious. Do any of the above words figure into the film?

    Here is a link with more information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sator_Square

    If you print this, please use the initials KC. Thanks.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted August 29, 2020 at 9:04 am | Permalink

      Arepo and Opera do.

    • Trevor Goodchild
      Posted August 29, 2020 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

      Did they feature Revilo Oliver? God, why not?!

  9. Dr ExCathedra
    Posted August 29, 2020 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    ” I confess that current events in the US have given me a powerful case of Negro fatigue, but I tried to be objective.”

    Mr Lynch has a cast-iron stomach. My case is so virulent that at least 9 out of 10 times, at least, whenever one of them shows up in something I am watching, I just turn it off. Makes it hard to watch anything produced after 1960.

    7 out of 8 people living in this country are not Black, but from their pestilential ubiquity in every form of media, you’d think it was at least 4 out of 8. And they’re either saintly victims or numinous geniuses. So galactically different from what they really are.

    Fatigue doesn’t begin to approach it.

    • K
      Posted August 30, 2020 at 9:37 am | Permalink

      You took the words right out of my mouth. We also have to deal with their obnoxious trash music and idiotic gyrations we have deigned to call “dancing.”

    • Trevor Goodchild
      Posted August 30, 2020 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      I still watch sometimes but god I agree with the sentiment! I was looking at the business magazines yesterday at a books million and every title was diversity in the workplace, racial sensitivity and on and on. When will this end? Who wants this?

      I feel that the possibilities of our civilization have exhausted themselves and high IQ have become bored and so are purposely imploding society out of ennui.

  10. Lycurgus
    Posted August 31, 2020 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    Christopher Nolan lost my respect entirely with that clunky piece of shit Interstellar. It was a storyline that revolved entirely around the “strong empowered woman.” But this wasn’t just any strong empowered woman, Jessica Chastain was solely responsible for saving the entirety of humanity.

    Nevermind that McConaughey was extremely brave, resourceful, and intelligent. His daughter was actually the literal savior of humanity and he was merely an assistant. As his reward he got to go fly out to Anne Hathaway to help her raise another man’s child.

    Despite my lack of enthusiasm for Dunkirk I ended up watching it. The Brits were cowards who should have rightfully lost the war. I didn’t connect with the story, or the characters.

    I wish the Man in the High Castle was reality and Hugo Boss was still in the uniform business.

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