by Matt Anderson

published September 1, 2020

Typical of Christopher Nolan’s best, Tenet offers more than can be absorbed in a single viewing.

A Gesture and a Word

Even though it’s a slow-burn kind of movie, Tenet starts pre-heated.

The action opens with a raid on an opera house in Ukraine. The Protagonist (John David Washington, BlacKkKlansman), blows his cover as a Russian soldier. He’s captured. His teeth are pulled. His cyanide capsule is confiscated and thrown away. He is, for all intents and purposes, a dead man.

But, not so fast. He’s rescued and, since he chose death over the easy route of surrendering his colleagues, his integrity is deemed a cut or two above the norm. He’s given a new life, albeit one in which his name isn’t spoken. He’s from thereon out simply The Protagonist. And he’s in for a doozy of a mission that involves a new Cold War on the cusp of all-out World War III.

And time travel.

The concept driving Tenet is called “inversion” and it’s basically entropy in reverse. The nuances and complexities quickly pile up — much like the multi-layered facets of Inception. Consider them as companion pieces of sorts; Tenet the spy movie and Inception the heist movie, all in the dizzyingly detailed and intricate world of Christopher Nolan’s mind.

As The Protagonist is advised, “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.”

We Live in a Twilight World

Writer/director Nolan places the inspiration for this one on the spy movies he saw as a kid. But this is a spy movie with a difference. After 50 years and 22 episodes, it wasn’t until Skyfall in 2012 that the Bond series finally stumbled on the secret sauce of themes and back stories and started to dig deep into the character of 007 himself. Tenet offers themes — and some really big ideas — in spades, but it also doesn’t mind dropping The Protagonist right into the thick of the action.

Nolan creates popular entertainment that is built on strong, original material working on several levels. Very few others play on that turf and at that level.

It’s a treat to think about the basics of The Protagonist. He’s not a bedroom spy; he’s on a mission that takes him all over the world while dealing with a forged Goya, crashing a plane, making amends for a mistake, facing an abusive Russian heavy and saving the world in a climactic action finale unlike any other. And even when the action is over, there’s still a kick — or two — before the end credits roll.

“Save the world, then we’ll balance the books,” The Protagonist is advised. Those words come from none other than Michael Caine, a key ingredient in most of Nolan’s movies, and they also help put the movie — and its making — in a certain perspective.

This is moviemaking on a fabulously large scale. IMAX large. It was a big deal seeing Batman Begins essentially upscaled for IMAX, then The Dark Knight upped the stakes with select scenes shot in IMAX. Nolan continues to push the format and it’s a glorious moviegoing experience to see scenes shot on the Amalfi Coast — on location, none of that CGI nonsense — in full-screen IMAX. Given the havoc COVID-19 has wreaked on the theatrical business during the past several months, Tenet is truly the perfect movie to jumpstart the reopening of movie theatres around the world.

The Future Speaks Back

The story is rich in its intricacies and implications. And it runs a little darker than average for Nolan.

As it’s explained to The Protagonist, a scientist generations from now created an algorithm that supported a method for time travel and from there the action begins to warrant a Cinema Interruptus event in order to best dissect and digest the details and the science. It’s fascinating. It’s mind-blowing.

But there are also the characters; there’s still a degree of heart wedged in amid all the action. At the center of the heart is Kat (Elizabeth Debicki, The Burnt Orange Heresy), who’s in a messy, ugly marriage. Her husband’s the kind of guy who takes breakups personally; he’s of the “if I can’t have you, nobody will” variety. And, well, it doesn’t hurt that Kenneth Branagh (Murder on the Orient Express) is unnervingly detestable as that husband, Andrei Sator.

He’s The Antagonist. He wants the algorithm and, since he’s dying of cancer, he wants to take the world with him.

But those are merely the first impressions. It’s time for a cinematic inversion; back it up and replay it. Undoubtedly quite a bit was missed the first time.

Tenet: Redux (September 8, 2020)

It gets better and richer the second time through. This is a tightly woven story that in some thematic respects completes a trilogy featuring Inception and Interstellar as the first two installments.

This is the journey of The Protagonist and it’s fascinating to watch his transition as the events unfold. He goes from being kicked to the curb and dead to the world to controlling his own fate. His name is never revealed and the conversations seamlessly flow without the typical pleasantries of introductions. Even a standard, run-of-the-mill alias is ditched as John David Washington’s character simply refers to himself as “The Protagonist.”

Capping it all, the ending’s a beauty. It all boils down to the concepts of self-determination and destiny.

Tenet: Three (September 15, 2020)

“You’ll see me in there again. Maybe in another pass in the fabric of this mission.”
— Neil (Robert Pattinson

So true, so true, Neil. I’ve taken another pass at the mission.

Here’s a question for post-movie beer or coffee chatter: What would’ve happened if The Protagonist hadn’t pulled Sator out of the water?

Watching Tenet for the third time (of course, in IMAX), it struck me what a monumental editing effort this one was. Thoughts of Michael Kahn, Paul Hirsch, Richard Chew, Marcia Lucas and others popped into my mind — their pioneering work in film editing on Star Wars and the Indy movies. Those quick cuts that extend out the anguish, like when Indy's struggling to pull himself out of the pit in the Peruvian temple while the giant slab continues to lower and lower... Can he get out in time? With his whip and fedora?

The editing here takes that concept and magnifies it by an exponential order of magnitude. The details involved in telling this story are mind-numbing. Why is that rearview mirror cracked? Wait a minute and it’s back in tact. But, in the case of Tenet, it’s not an error. It’s part of the story.

Those details. They even extend into the lyrics of Travis Scott’s song, The Plan, which is featured in both the action and the end credits. It’s an unusually custom-fit original song that seamlessly blends in with the action and Ludwig Goransson’s score.