by Symeon J. Thompson
A stunning and seductive achievement, Tenet is a classically structured spy thriller rich in ambiguity and allusion, a multilayered and cerebral cinematic exercise fusing science fiction and chivalric romance with the grey labyrinth of conspiracy and geopolitics.
Christopher Nolan has crafted an incredible film, visually and aurally amazing, and completely lacking in computer-generated imagery. They really do crash a jumbo jet for one scene. As impressive as it is, its unashamed intellectualism and complex structure definitely requires repeated viewings.
The unnamed Protagonist (John David Washington, son of Denzel) is a CIA man who’s been recruited for something more, a war behind the curtain of reality, between a shadowy future seeking destruction and a shadowy organisation seeking to counter it.
Like his father’s character in The Equalizer films, the Protagonist is a ruthless and supremely competent man, but one who’s extremely principled and controlled, and unwilling to sacrifice innocents.
The film’s scientific premise is that a future age has found a way to invert the entropy of matter, thus allowing it to move backwards through time. This creates a sort of time travel as people and objects can make their way into the past, impacting upon it and leaving messages for posterity. As characters keep mentioning: if you try to think solely in linear terms, you’ll be overwhelmed, so you just have to feel it.
Such a premise meshes nicely with the labyrinthine world of intelligence operations. Ignorance is ammunition. Need to know means you don’t need to. Knowledge divided is knowledge protected. The paradox underlying intelligence work is the need to trust and distrust in equal measure, everyone and everything; much like how the paradox with time travel is balancing what’s happened with what you’re going to do.
This might seem to counter free will, but such a thought is expressly rejected. Nothing happens without someone choosing it. They still need to choose, decide, and act for something to occur. The arc words are “what’s happened, happened”: which is explained as “an expression of faith in the mechanics of the universe, not an excuse to do nothing”.
The film’s iciness, allusiveness, and ambiguity, channelling as it does such noirish, conspiracy-laden and intricate yarns as those of Len Deighton and The Ipcress File, or Alfred Hitchcock’s work, or Orson Welles’ Confidential Report, or G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday might appear to undermine any emotional heft it might have, but this is untrue. It helps to have a taste for such Russian Doll style narratives, and an awareness of how they work, but the heart is still there, beating.
Spy yarns, like detective stories, hark back to the Romances of Chivalry. Tenet, like Nolan’s other work, ties in strongly with this worldview, with an awareness that chivalric relationships were built on detachment and adoration rather than consummation and possession – service for its own sake was the end of such romance, not Happily Ever After.
The knights of chivalry were not dedicated to just any ladies – they were dedicated to married ones who were always unattainable. Things went wrong if devotion became desire. Lancelot’s devotion to Guinevere was not the problem, but the way it trans-muted into desire, a desire that brought down Camelot.
As with Nolan’s other films, it is possession of a woman that signals disaster, whether it is the memory of a wife long gone in Inception or the villainess masquerading as heroine in The Dark Knight Rises.
In this case, it is Kenneth Branagh’s controlling and savage Andrei Sator, an arms dealer ruled by his passions and defined by his darkest impulses, desperate to maintain ownership over not just his estranged wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), but the whole of reality, if he can.
This is contrasted with the Protagonist, who, while he may have been inspired by James Bond, lacks that damaged brute’s inability to see men, women and even himself as little more than objects. Instead, he’s more like Patrick McGoohan’s John Drake or The Prisoner.
The Protagonist clearly sees everyone as a person who matters. He may have killed, but he won’t dehumanise. Crucially, he delights in little things, like a smile, rather than big things, like a lover. For what matters to him is doing the right thing to bring about the right outcome, rather than any reward for himself – the satisfaction of “Mission Accomplished” rather than the glory of getting the girl.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).