I used to think The Godfather Part II was an incredibly overrated movie. It was one of my cherished, spicy takes that would forever toil away rotting in the metaphorical fridge. After all, deploying a take on a nearly half a century old movie is not the sort of thing one regularly gets the opportunity to do at parties, and definitely not the sort of thing one would do at the parties I attended in college.
Over the years, I experienced the movie again a few more times, largely in a far from ideal commercial interrupted cable broadcast on a subpar television, often while multitasking. As a more experienced movie watcher, there were certainly things I could appreciate much more than on my first viewing. To name a few things, the lush warm color palette of its incredible, on location set design and signature 35mm technicolor look, the precise, pitch perfect acting performance of every character from Al Pacino’s bombastic portrayal of a more ruthless Michael Corleone to the cold, unflinchingly loyal performance of Richard Bright in the bit part of Al Neri, and of course, the intricate thematic dualities of showing young Vito’s story side by side with an ascended Michael’s.
What finally made the movie click for me is when The Rewatchables, a movie podcast I happen to enjoy quite a lot, dropped their episode on The Godfather Part II. I re-watched the movie (without commercials) in preparation for the podcast, listened to it, then re-watched it again. I felt a combination of the emotions of a child discovering a brand new toy and the relief of a marathon runner crossing the finish line. You see, while it’s quite fun to be contrarian and engage in spirited debate about the merits of art, it’s much more deep and emotionally satisfying to share an experience of emotional resonance and appreciated with those around you. It’s a shortcut to genuine human connection in a world designed more than ever to drive people apart. It is why so many people feel so passionately about silly kids movies like Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe in spite of their nakedly commercial natures.
But I digress. There are two particular quotes from Brian Koppelman on this podcast that really cemented my newfound appreciation for the Godfather Part II.
“The Godfather (part 1)[…] is a fable in many ways. It’s King Lear[…]Don Corleone, as vicious as he can be, never does a bad thing by the rules of the movie and so you’re allowed to love him. Godfather one taps into your empathy and sympathy. Godfather two asks much more difficult questions. Godfather two asks you to put yourself in Michael Corleone’s shoes to see if you can think the way he does. Godfather two unfolds and unfolds and unfolds[…]and you can find yourself, taking different people’s sides…”
Hm…a less viscerally satisfying experience but one that’s deeper and more complex. Certainly reminds me of a certain statement a few paragraphs upwards. And the other quote:
“There are things about being on the inside, of making stuff (referring to his work as the showrunner for ‘Billions’)and being inside it and around it, like, there are discussions that were long discussions on about wardrobe and facial hair. When you think about the mustache that Fredo decides to have, in two, the way it is in that scene[…]There’s a production designer[…]the amount of time the designer would have taken to find the house that stands in for Reno, then that room, then deciding to set that scene in that room, then that chair. Somebody picked that chair. for him. That’s not just there. That chair is chosen for him to have that posture. Then the actor sits in that chair and decides they want to be in that posture. Then that morning[…] they’ve looked at reference photos for chairs of that period, and then the guy is like, that’s the mustache I want, Francis, what do you think of that mustache, and then he’s like, can you maybe take a quarter inch off the top of it, I mean, that is what happens…”
Pictured: The scene Koppelman is describing.
That’s 185 words (technically more since I cut out some of the verbal filler) to explain one fraction of the production design for one character in one two minute scene.
When you approach The Godfather Part II with the understanding that it was made with that insane level of intentionality and detail, that is when its genius clicks. When you understand that every single period appropriate outfit and authentic location is hand selected not just to be accurate, but to convey the emotion and the thematic depth of what it has to say about the Italian American experience, you experience the power and the weight of its construction and the cinematic mastery of Francis Ford Coppola and his cinematic collaborators. When you allow yourself to be immersed completely in their intricately constructed worlds, the questions I used to ask about this movie “Why the fuck are they in Cuba?” don’t matter anymore. (Also, when you watch it for the 10th time, you’re much closer to being able to answer that said question, which enhances your experience further)
And by the way, while my original opinion on this movie scalding hot take by modern standards, it would have been right in line with the critical reception of The Godfather Part 2 in its own time which ranged between “not as good as part 1” and “massive disappointment.” That’s right. I didn’t forget this blog post was supposed to be about Tenet, which had a similar middling to negative critical reception.
Also, as we dive into the meat of this thing (boy, that was a long intro), I feel compelled out of courtesy to warn you everything going forward will spoil just about every aspect of the movie Tenet. If it makes you feel better though, the movie’s plot is so deeply convoluted that it’s effectively un-spoilable, and I would argue going into the movie knowing the part may enhance your enjoyment of this film in particular.
Plot vs. Story
Within the realm of artistic criticism, there is a clear distinction between the terms “plot” and “story” that is not regularly deployed in our every day vocabulary. One could very reasonably place the two next to each other in a thesaurus, but for the purposes of understanding both of these movies, it is of the utmost importance we draw this distinction.
Plot is the literally occurrences of what happens in the movie. It is the string of cause and effect and the chronology of beginning>middle>end. Story is the emotional thrust of what is happening, the inner motivations and feelings of the characters, and the themes the text is conveying. Plot is one of tools an artist has at their disposal to convey story. You can have story without plot, but you can’t have plot without story. Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” painting, for example, has effectively nothing in the way of plot, but there is a distinct and obvious emotional tone, or one might say – a story, that it intends to convey.
Pictured: The Scream
To illustrate this by example, let’s use a much simpler cinematic classic. I am going to write a very brief summary of Rocky’s plot, and then another one about Rocky’s story.
The Plot of Rocky: A local boxer gets a chance to fight the world champion after the champ’s original opponent bows out last minute and he needs a chump to fill the card. The boxer accepts because he’s offered 150,000 dollars to do so. He trains for a long time and gets a girlfriend. He loses.
The Story of Rocky: A down on his luck aspiring boxer who feels lost and alone in life gets a once in a life time opportunity to fight the world champion. Even though winning won’t make him any more money, the boxer decides to seriously try to win the fight. Through the process of training harder than he ever has, he finds a purpose and sense of fulfillment which makes him a more complete and self actualized human being, which helps his romantic life tremendously. He loses to the champ in an honorable fashion, but the lessons he learned by focusing his talent has improved his astronomically, so it doesn’t matter.
As Stephen King said in his part autobiography part writing tutorial On Writing: plot is often the cumbersome distraction to story.
The Godfather Part 2 and Tenet are both movies with incredibly complex plots, but they are also movies with incredibly powerful, enriching, and deep stories. The plots are but a vehicle to deliver these stories. This is the most important thing you need to keep in mind as I start dissecting Tenet and comparing it to the Godfather Part 2.
Context and Hubris
While it is technically possible, and sometimes useful, to watch a film and ignore all context, one should typically assume most artistic consumption is done so within the context of an individual’s prerequisite knowledge and experiences. With The Godfather Part II and Tenet, these movies outright demand they are watched within their own contexts or else they become audio-visual soup.
With Godfather II, the needed context is quite apparent. It is a sequel, of course, but sequels exist on a spectrum for which context is needed. On one extreme is a movie like Mad Max: Fury Road , which not only requires no knowledge of the previous films at all to understand in its entirety, but is not entirely clear on whether it even exists within the same timeline/universe of the prior Mad Max movies. The Godfather Part II exists on the opposite side of the spectrum. It is so deeply rooted in the consequences of the actions taken by characters in the prior movie as well as its expertly crafted characterizations of returning characters.
As Brian Koppelman said in relation to The Godfather I, it teaches us to love Vito Corleone because of his relatively honorable nature. It is that love for Vito that invests us into the seemingly disconnected story of young Vito before it is tragically connected as the last scene in Vito’s timeline – Michael announcing to his family that his intent to enlist int he U.S Marine Corps (instead of working the Family Business) and Fredo being the only one supportive of his decision – and the last scene in Michael’s timeline – Michael ordering Al Neri to kill his brother Fredo. Our pre-established love for Vito as the mafia don and his dedication to his family is what connects us emotionally to the tragedy and connects the two timelines thematically.
There is also a less obvious context to The Godfather Part II. It is not strictly necessary but enhances the story further. The context of the real life struggles and immigrant stories of Italian Americans and the understanding of the importance of multi generational families for that culture further enhances the tragedy, as does the aggressive Americanization of the family and its business under Michael’s rule as Don. As Koppelman said in the second quote, it is all those little period accurate details that show you that extra layer. They communicate that the Corleones under the more brutal Michael have had their cultural identity stripped from them.
Tenet on the surface level appears to be a movie needing little to no context. There is no prequel and, one would assume given the box office return, no sequel. There is no Tenet Cinematic Universe™. There isn’t even any needed historical context as the world the movie exists in is one that is vaguely our own but mostly divorced from any countries, contemporary political ideologies or historic events, and yet it still demands a large depth of a very unique and little discussed kind of context.
Christopher Nolan is an avowed fan of genre films. He’s not so subtly hinted at a desire to direct a James Bond movie in the future. He’s a huge fan of the Fast and Furious films. He loves Star Wars. He’s even something of a fan of the critically panned filmography of dudebro director Michael Bay. I go out of my way to make this point because in his own works he lives right in the dead center between thematically driven traditional drama and genre driven excitement.
The toolbox genre brings in the form of its tropes and coding is uniquely useful in the medium of film. Given the incredibly narrow constraints of time and scale in comparison to other art forms, the shortcuts one can take through genre tropes are helpful, particularly as the complexity of the story grows. For example, you don’t need to see Uma Thurman as The Bride in Kill Bill do a fifteen minute training montage to prove she’s a badass because Tarantino uses the shortcut of drama to show us she’s a badass by dressing her in Bruce Lee’s iconic yellow jumpsuit. When you’re dealing with as many moving parts as Kill Bill’s script is, that kind of shortcut is invaluable.
That context of understanding Genre and its built in expectations of tropes is absolutely pivotal in having any chance in understanding Tenet. Tenet is a movie with an absurdly complicated plot that it has 150 minutes to deliver. It has no time to sit you down and explain what’s going on. The vast majority of exposition is explained in a single 180 second scene where The Protagonist visits a scientist who explains only the most bare, basic rules of the universe. Really, there are only three pieces of information conveyed:
- Objects (and presumably, people) can move through time forwards and backwards.
- Someone, somewhere are changing what direction these objects move through time to send them back into the past.
- Free will exists in this universe. The fact that people are going back in time to change the past does not prevent this.
Yet, if someone (Nolan assumes, the majority of his audience) is familiar with the tropes of time travel movies, they can apply a lot of additional information from the scientist scene. For example, with the first point, the way it is visually shown and explained indicates that you can only travel through time at the same speed. It takes a year to go backwards in time one year, just as it takes in the real world one year to go forwards in time one year. This is pretty intentionally in stark contrast to the way time travel works in most movies. In Back to the Future, for example, Marty can go backwards in time 30 years in a matter of a few seconds. With the second point, we can ascertain that the bad guys of the film are trying to change the past in some adverse matter because the genre convention of time travel movies have taught us that trying to change the past is typically a bad thing.
This understanding of time travel genre convention becomes even more important as you learn more about this world along with The Protagonist. One thing that becomes very clear, because multiple characters who seem to know a lot more about what’s going on than you and The Protagonist say so, is that “what happened happened.” That’s because these more knowledgeable seeming characters repeat some version of this mantra many times. If you are not familiar with the conventions of time travel movies, this mantra will make absolutely no sense, and it will turn your brain to mush. If you do understand Nolan’s presumed common knowledge amongst his audience, it’s pretty simple.
Most time travel movies exist on a continuum of being able to change or not being able to change the past. On one extreme is Back to the Future, where every time someone goes back in time, any changes that are made to the past by the time traveler radically alter the future, and the prior version of the events is erased entirely. On the other extreme is 12 Monkeys, where the time traveler can’t stop the super plague from happening, because if he could, he would have already experienced the results of his own success. The “what’s happened happened” mantra is a statement of intent by Tenet’s script to explain that this movie airs much closer to the 12 Monkeys idea that the timeline is predetermined by who did or didn’t travel back in time at any point in history. It is a potent genre short cut that allows Nolan to explain what I just explained without having to use precious minutes of screen time to do so.
Given the absolutely essential role context plays in understanding the story of Tenet, it is impossible to watch in the sort of context neutral conception I imagined at the beginning of this section. That is why the circumstances in which it was released are so deeply unfortunate for its fate for how it is critically consumed.
There’s no clever way to say this. The decision to release Tenet during the middle of a global pandemic, a decision driven in part by its creator Christopher Nolan, is definitionally responsible for the death of actual human beings. I don’t really want to dive too deep into this. That is not because I believe discussing the moral implications of how art is released or the implications art makes is invalid, but because it’s sort of beyond the scope of what is already surely going to be my longest blog post by a significant margin. I only bring this up because the sort of sour taste in the audience’s mouth that is left by the recklessness of its decision making combined with the sort of implication, intended or not, that by being the first major studio release during the pandemic, Tenet was positioning itself as a referendum on the concept of going to movie theatres as a whole in a unique situation that threatens to have streaming replace theatre attendance in an absolute and permanent capacity. That’s an incomprehensible amount of pressure to put on your own movie. It dwarves even that of Avengers: Endgame, which positioned itself as the finale to a 22 film epic mega-story.
It’s kind of funny, in retrospect then, that both Avengers: Endgame and Tenet both involve time travel. That’s where the similarities end, however. Avengers: Endgame takes a few unique story decision here and there, but is ultimately a very by the numbers super hero movie that is more unique in its sheer unprecedented scope and ambition than by its actual artistic construction. Tenet, on the other hand, is in the running for strangest big budget movie in the history of cinema. That sort of thing at the best of times will bring plentiful detractors. With the self-imposed error of throwing an unprecedented weight of anticipation and expectation on the film’s box office and critical importance, it was doomed to fail in both regards.
It is that same level of hubris that is the source of, in my view, its singular glaring and obvious artistic flaw. That flaw is as bizarre as the rest of the discourse surrounding the movie. Large chunks of important dialogue are made incomprehensible by the way Christopher Nolan chose to mix the sound in the movie to emphasize immersion and a feeling of place and location over clarity. Nolan’s explanation for this is that it was mixed in a way that properly constructed high quality theatre sound systems to give a premium experience. This is a very dumb plan and inexcusable for a film maker of his caliber. That’s because:
- The plot, I feel like maybe I’ve mentioned this a few times, is incredibly complex. If I cut every 10 lines out of the movie Rocky and muted then, that would certainly be annoying, but the movie would still be equally comprehensible. Tenet, on the other hand, has such a precise and slim script when it comes to the dolling out of information that critically important information is often dolled out in single sentences.
- This haughty attitude of seeing your movies in the “proper” way, i.e: IMAX theatres, is grating at the best of times, let alone during the most deadly pandemic since the Spanish Flu. If its that critically important to you Chris, how about you just release your movie exclusively in IMAX format, only you won’t do that because your hubris also demands that you get a 200 million dollar production budget and 20% of first dollar gross.
- To add to the last point, Tenet is a movie about time traveling spies. You really don’t need to take yourself so god damn seriously.
If you came to my blog for art opinions, I’m sure you feel my political grandstanding is a bit excessive as most of what I said has very little to do with the quality of the film Tenet. On the other hand, if you came here for political insight, I’m sure the concept of lauding Tenet as a great movie is equally offensive given the affront to human decency that its release is should, in the political view, disqualify it from being remembered as anything but a disaster. As a socially conscious individual who also believes art criticism has gotten carried away with often times viewing art through a strictly political lens, I’m walking a fine line with my point about hubris. This is very “there are two wolves inside of you” meme of me, but let me address both sides of my own theoretical audience for a moment.
For the artistic side of me: Understand that the reason I bring this up is 1) I want to make it crystal clear why the movie was such a failure by traditional box office and, to a lesser extent, critical metrics and 2) I think discussing Nolan’s hubris in his release is a useful parallel to his hubris in making such an aggressively bizarre decision with the sound mixing of Tenet. There’s a sort of Michael Jordan esque “his flaw is also what makes him great” sort of deal with the overall ambition of it all, but that again, is a bit beyond the scope of what I really want to discuss.
For the political side of me: Come on dude. Think of all the truly atrocious, inhumane decision making that has been made by elected politicians, government officials, slimy billionaire businessmen, and every day mask truther jackasses during the pandemic. As far as pandemic atrocities are concerned, the release of Tenet doesn’t crack the top 100. Equating liking the movie on its own artistic merits to some sort of moral failing is a sort of blackpilled hypocritical hyper dedication to political ideology that becomes pure buffoonery.
Finally, to somewhat tie this whole thing all together, I just want everyone to remember that in addition to the critical ‘meh’ at best reaction to the Godfather Part 2, it also only made roughly 30% of what its predecessor did at the box office. No one cares about any of that in today’s modern context of discussing either Godfather film. Likewise, I am somewhat optimistic that Tenet could experience something similar. I guess this is my way of calling my shot in being on the ‘right’ side of history, but to really fully do so, it’s time to dive into defending tenet purely by its own artistic merits.
To understand all the things I love about Tenet, its complex character motivations and deep thematic subtexts, we reach a point where understanding its plot, at least in its broadest strokes, is fundamentally necessary. For the sake of brevity, (relatively speaking – we’re well past the point of actual brevity) I’m going to assume you’ve seen the movie at least once and/or read the wikipedia plot summary section. Feel free to skip the “Unlocking Tenet” section if:
- You’ve watched the movie obsessively 10+ times like I have and feel like you understand the details already or:
- You’ve never seen the movie but still want to know why I think it’s a good movie. (Hi mom and dad)
With that out of the way, I would like to posit that the key to understanding Tenet is understanding the flow of information. This is where I think one can reasonably argue Tenet is flawed to a certain extent because the cold open is a bit misleading in to what extent The Protagonist understands the mechanics of time travel and the function of Tenet the vaguely conspiratorial mastermind behind what can vaguely be perceived as the “good guys” or the time war. I can see either perspective to the argument that the objectives behind the Opera cold open scene should have been more clearly communicated or kept as vague as they are. On one hand, the withholding of this information sets an audience expectation right out the gate that information on the plot and mechanics of Tenet’s world is going to be largely implied and never spoon fed to them while also allowing the movie to have a more visceral and entertaining opening action sequence to wet our appetite before the dialogue heavy first act of the movie. On the other hand, explaining it more clearly would have certainly made comprehension of the movie as a whole much easier.
The objective of the Opera house scene from a plot standpoint is that The Protagonist needs to extract a mole in the bad guys’ organization, let’s call them Team Sator going forward, and instead give them a fake mole to eliminate so that the real one can continue feeding Tenet information about Team Sator. This is probably the hardest bit of information to extract from the movie, as it’s really only contextualized by the combination of Nolan using the genre convention of spy movies to ‘show don’t tell’ to the extreme in combination with having a much better idea of the world’s mechanics at the end of the movie.
Now here’s the important bit. At this point in the movie, The Protagonist also barely knows what’s going on here. I think (it gets a little fuzzy here) he’s vaguely aware that there’s some element of time travel going on, but for the most part, from his perspective, this is much more so a C.I.A type extraction mission than a save the world time travel mission.
I’ve seen a lot of criticism lobbed towards this choice to have the main character of the movie referred primarily to as, quite literally, “The Protagonist.” This is a surface level criticism levelled towards a general aversion to cutesy movie bullshit, and yes, there is some element of that, but to dismiss it as only that is a failure to understand how the movie function.
The Protagonist is John David Washington’s given C.I.A code name, but it’s not chosen at random. From a metatextual standpoint, it is meant to clearly signal to the audience we are mean to view the events unfolding from his perspective. That in itself is not some revolutionary idea, but Nolan takes that about as far as it’s ever been taken before. That is part of what I meant in that the movie is extremely precise of what information it gives and when, and so after the Opera scene, we more or less know exactly the same amount of information about the mechanics of the world and the plot as The Protagonist knows, and Nolan’s solution to the unclear nature of the Opera cold open is to root everything deeply in his perspective. Just about every shot in this movie, other than a few important exceptions with Neil and Kat, are from The Protagonist’s viewpoint. The combination of cinematography and funky code name is what is meant to clear up this mechanism of information delivery.
The Final layer is that within the plot of the movie itself, the codename “The Protagonist” is very specifically chosen, rather than at random. It is meant to signal to Priya that this is the “fresh as a daisy” new recruit into Tenet to take on Team Sator, and more importantly, it is meant to signal to The Protagonist himself what the ultimate mechanical thrust of Tenet itself is which ties the movie as a whole into a neat bow (more on this later)
If you watch the events of the movie with this understanding that The Protagonist knows only a tiny bit more than you do, a lot of the actions taken and things said to him make a lot more sense. Through the context of genre convention, Nolan takes the idea of blind trust in Spy movies to its logical extreme with all its characters following their puppet master strings because of an absolute faith in, as Neil explains in the end of the movie, “the mechanics of the world.” You believe that the Tenet organization would only explain itself to The Protagonist in the vaguest terms because the time travel genre has taught us that information should be withheld to avoid messing up the past AND that the spy movie genre has taught us to trust no one.
If you understand the way in which information is conveyed to both the audience and to The Protagonist, then you’re almost there to being able to understand the movie, or at least understanding the broad strokes of it.
The final thing essential to understanding the movie as a whole is understanding that Tenet is, first and foremost, a time travel movie. Another common critique I’ve seen of this movie is a sort of general sense of disappointment that “really, it was just a spy movie with some sci-fi/time travel elements thrown in there.” That’s just not factually correct. I’m honestly a little baffled on how this became a popular opinion. Everything is so rooted in how the mechanics of time travel work in this movie. In fact, I’m going to, hopefully, unlock the rest of the movie by presenting what is possibly the greatest visual aid created in human history.
If you follow the graphic with the inherent understanding that the events as seen in Tenet are purely within The Protagonist’s timeline (as Nolan signals for us to do by naming his character as such), and you do so with what I’ve said above in mind, I think at the very least, you can get the movie in the important, broad strokes. It still has questions like “why does The Protagonist wake up in a cargo crate after not dying in the burning car?” – one of this movie’s “why the fuck are they in Cuba?” type questions – but the broader plot is all that’s needed to really understand what really matters: the story.
An Expression of Faith
The two major critiques lobbed at Christopher Nolan by his skeptics are his propensity to skip all the hard characterization stuff with his protagonists and instead just give them a dead wife and more generally, his movies having a little to no visceral feeling of emotion within them. Despite my personal propensity for his movies, I think these are entirely fair criticisms of his filmography.
With the first critique, Tenet fixes it by just not having a dead wife. Yes, it’s the lowest possible bar to clear, but really, it’s the second flaw I want to dig into. An implied critique in the comments like “Every character in a Christopher Nolan movie is asexual,” or “the only emotional motivation he ever attempts is a very perfunctory and/or sexist dead wife trope” is that there are no “real” human beings to latch onto. Some would take this to an extreme and argue that his movies are artistically worthless because they offer no insight into the human condition. What critiques that go this far miss is the one directing skill Nolan never gets nearly enough credit for:
Christopher Nolan is a fantastic actor’s director.
He rarely gets credit for consistently getting A+ performances out of just about everyone he has ever worked with. On a surface level, it’s easy to dismiss this and say it’s only because he can get the best actors with his giant budgets. I could go on about all the great famous performances in his movies, but I’d rather refute the idea by zooming on one particular performance in a bit part of the movie that took Nolan to the stratosphere: The Dark Knight.
Heath Ledger’s iconic Joker in The Dark Knight sets up his final philosophical refutation of morality itself with something not too far removed from a Freudian theoretical exercise. There are two boats, one full of prisoners – “people who had their chance” – as the movie puts it, and the other full of non-prisoner civilians. Up to this point in the movie, the events of The Dark Knight have largely validated his philosophical world view. He’s proved that without society “people” will eat each other from the opening scene, where he gets his own bank robbing colleagues to gun each other down in a domino like sequence, and confirmed this again when he got more or less most of the city to try to kill Coleman Reese. He’s even proven that anyone can be corrupted with Harvey Dent (our heroes don’t’ know this yet, but the audience does.). While Jim Gordon’s speech at the end of this movie about “Gotham’s Dark Knight” is this movie’s thesis statement, this scene is the proof. It is the only moment in the movie in which the plot actively refutes the Joker’s nihilism.
What I’m saying here is that for one minute (the first minute of the above scene), the movie rests the enormous eight of both its emotional climax and its entire philosophical statement not on any of its tremendous A-list superstars, but on Doug Ballard, some guy no one’s heard of with 3 movies listed in his IMDB page. Ballard knocks this scene out of the park as the thankless role simply accredited as “Businessman.” Just prior to this, he declares that everyone on the boat wants to kill the prisoners to save themselves, but doesn’t have the stomach to do it themselves. In the hands of a less skilled performer, this could come of as cartoonish cruel, but his refutations instead read as equal parts indignant and terrified. Then, as the music cranks the tension to 11, without a single word, his facial expressions sell the consequence of murdering hundreds of people. His eyes dart to the clock knowing, as far as he’s concerned, he’ll die when the clock strikes midnight. His hand trembles, and he lays the detonator down. It is an expression of a sort of blind belief in the broad philosophical concept of good.
I think Nolan knows that the sort of broad, sweeping emotion that most populist entertainment aims for is not his strong suit, which is why he’s insistent on making sure his actors have a great deal of freedom and agency in fine tuning their performances. You can even see the extreme lengths of trust he has in his actors in his visual style, particularly his early films which were were assembled largely as a plain, workman like array of medium close up shots. It’s an oddly nondescript visual language for someone with such an otherwise extremely distinctive filmmaking style and vision.
Still, incredible acting has limits when there’s just not necessarily always a ton to chew on besides “dead wife.” Luckily, as I already alluded to, that’s not the only flaw in Nolan’s story crafting that Tenet solves. In one fell swoop, the concept of Tenet manages to turn the distinctively subdued and reserved emotional tone of his writing from a weakness into a strength by means of its worldbuilding and thereby allowing the excellent performances of the three lead actors to really shine.
In lesser Nolan movies (which generally speaking, I still like quite a lot), characters’ personalities feel underplayed and muted because the dialogue is more concerned about the mechanics or the plot or philosophical musings. That leads to the emotional catharsis, while usually quite masterfully done on its own terms, feelings somewhat unearned because the struggle which was overcome was purely mechanical. Tenet is able to make this muted emotional tone a strength because its characters are largely time travelers, spies or both. Because Tenet and Team Sator are in a match of wits beyond the scope of even the movie itself, every tiny morsel of information feels utterly invaluable. The characters in Tenet are not holding back because of the limitations of the writing, but because the tiniest slip up could have cataclysmic consequences in the movie’s game of fates. Because the staggering complexity of the plot forces you to pay attention every single detail, you get the awash feeling of immersion not only from Nolan’s always expertly crafted practical effects driven spectacle, but from the smallest details of emotion and personality that the brilliant acting performances radiate throughout the film.
Which gets us to Tenet’s ending – one of the greatest movie endings in cinema history. (I am being completely sincere when I say this)
After a bit of theatre with Ives, where his original idea to kill our two heroes serves as one more reminder that there’s still a hint of distrust even amongst Tenet’s closest collaborators, Neil refutes his distrust by handing his portion of the algorithm to The Protagonist. This gives The Protagonist permission to finally trust someone, to be open with his own ignorance as to the mechanics of Tenet’s mission as well as with his emotions.
Nolan, with his signature object insert shot as the music swells, reveals the man who was shot unlocking the door for The Protagonist and Ives was in fact Neil, who right after this, is going to go back in time one more time to unlock the door we just witnessed so that this version of him can drag them out of the underground bunker. He is willingly walking to his death because, as he says, “it is an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world.” Lines like “for me this is the end, but for you this is just the beginning” and “this is the start of the beautiful friendship” would be choppy and cheesy in less skilled hands, but Robert Pattison’s effortless smoothness sells this as he calmly walks to his death. But still, it’s John David Washington who gets the real fireworks of this scene.
John David Washington is the son of one superstar actor, Denzel Washington, but his acting of this scene reminds of that of a different superstar actor, Will Smith. Specifically, Will Smith has an incredible talent for always giving the audience the feeling that he is holding something back. Even in his spectacular Prince of Bel Air scene after his father leaves (we all know the one), even as he is screaming about all the things he accomplished without his father, we the audience can feel that there’s even more inside of him that he is holding back. Even when he finally lets it out, the iconic “how come he don’t want me man!” is but a whimper of a tough teenager who doesn’t want his real father figure to see him cry for real.
John David Washington’s performance is not nearly as grand. After all, he’s still playing a spy in a Christopher Nolan movie instead of boisterous teenager in a sitcom. But the way everything is so restrained and information is so desperately held close to the chest until his makes it feel as big as Will Smith’s iconic Prince of Bel Air outburst. Washington’s red eyes and cracked voice as he yells “whose!” when wanting to know who is in charge of it all communicates such a unique and specific emotion of sadness, relief, exhaustion and bewilderment that is in all aspects justified by the events of the movie. It’s so specific that it’s impossible to replicate, and that’s what makes it beautiful.
The Bomb That Never Goes Off
In words of informercial legend Billy Mays: “But wait! There’s more!”
Tenet doesn’t actually end with The Protagonist’s emotional catharsis. Instead, it flows straight into its final scene smoothly and effortlessly as Neil’s ghost delivers a brief but still classically Nolan thesis statement in the form of dialogue:
“Litlte people saving the world from what might have been. The world will never know what could have happened, but even if they did, they wouldn’t care. Nobody would care because no one cares about the bomb that could have gone off. Only the one that did.”
And wow that is staggeringly prescient for words that were written maybe a year before a global pandemic killed over half a million people in large part because our President Trump dismantled the prior administration’s pandemic response team out of childish spite. We’ll get more into that in a moment.
Then, the movie ties itself into a neat little bow. The Protagonist gifts us with one final reveal, as his insurance plan to protect Kat pays off as he is able to go back in time to protect her from Priya’s assassination attempt, which serves as one last minor demonstration of Neil’s point about the bomb that doesn’t go off. This scene serves as something of a musical coda for the entire movie. It’s just connected enough to the rest of the movie that it doesn’t feel out of place, but far enough removed that we can, for one brief moment, see The Protagonist in his ultimate form. When we hear the recording of Kat’s voice play on his phone as she is saying those exact words in front of him, we see indisputable visual evidence that The Protagonist has finally become what he trained himself via his own future machinations to be: the ultimate master of time and space.
Christopher Nolan is widely known for being thought provoking and thematically complex. However, I think it’s safe to say that his attempts at subject matter in the realm of contemporary politics has been some of his least inspired work in this field. The bat radar surveillance of The Dark Knight’s third act is both too explicitly political (Lucius Fox raises moral objections, thus the movie acknowledges this is a moral quandary and not just silly comic book movie bullshit) and too unaware of its own political implications (within the context of the movie, the surveillance system is objectively a good thing, and then it just has Lucius Fox ‘destroy’ it tying everything together way too neatly and ignoring the millions of cell phones that can still be switched back to bat radar mode at any time). The political theming of The Dark Knight Rises is famously such a mess that, frankly, I think a lot of it is done on accident.
On a service level, Tenet can certainly be read in a similarly conservative light. Tenet the organization operates in extreme secrecy, and its ability to function is predicated on the fact that everyone completes their task with a blind faith that is unwavering and absolute. That’s quite similar to how the C.I.A operates in the real world, and the atrocities that America has committed or supported around the world are justified with abstract reasons that are only slightly less vague than Tenet’s. Also, the movie implies that Tenet is either a branch within the C.I.A or a sleeper cell organization within the C.I.A so, yeah…not exactly difficult to draw parallels there.
Here me out here, but there’s a lot more sophistication and nuance going on here underneath the surface. The movie specifically repudiates the two characters who embody the philosophy of blind faith the most: Ives and Priya.
The movie goes out of its way right before the emotional goodbye I just waxed poetic about to have Ives express a moment of viscous suspicion. Ives grabs his handgun off the ground with the intent of killing Neil and The Protagonist before burying the algorithm away and killing himself so no one could possibly extract the information from him. It is the purest expression in the blind faith he has in Tenet itself. After all, he has been taught Tenet’s most important lesson, trust no one, and he’s been taught that the reason for all of this is to stop Sator from assembling the algorithm so he can destroy the world. Therefor, the most surefire way to assure that doesn’t happen is to make sure he’s the only one who knows where the algorithm is by killing the only two witnesses and then killing himself once it’s hidden. The problem with that plan, of course, is that The Protagonist is the founder of Tenet and giver of all orders.
The movie exposes the flaws in blind faith on its own, because Ives’ own blind faith ideology would have, ironically, caused the end of the world by preventing Tenet from ever existing if he had followed through with his intent rather than allowing himself to trust Neil and The Protagonist, if only for a brief moment.
To accentuate the point further, the movie immediately gives us another example of its ideological refutations with Priya. She’s selfish and presumably, as an arms dealer, doing this all for her own selfish gains, but she’s not a monster. She mutters to her goon to assassinate Kat quickly before her son returns to her from school. She’s not interested in collateral damage. However, her willingness to kill an innocent woman just because of the possibility she might cause Priya problems down the lines is her undoing. The Protagonist, master of time and space, has already made arrangements to prevent that from happening. Speak of which…
The Protagonist is the only member of Tenet that doesn’t operate purely on blind faith. The more obvious example is at the end, where he goes out of his way to do additional time traveling to save Kat’s life even though it’s entirely perfunctory at this point and, arguably, a risk to the existence of the world itself. However, he’s operating in a matter much more rooted in personal morality and principles well before that. An incredibly easy to forget detail in Tenet is right after the red room/blue room interrogation scene, The Protagonist declares that he’s going back in time to save Kat against the advice of Ives and Neil, who know a hell of a lot more at this point about what’s going on than The Protagonist does. That’s because to him, cliche warning, the world’s not worth saving if he has to sacrifice innocents and/or his humanity to do so. In response to this, Ives, ultimate believer in the blind faith at-any-cost mantra mutters “Cowboy shit. This is cowboy shit!”
And more importantly, the movie explicitly endorses The Protagonist’s worldview rather than that of Ives or Priya. It validates The Protagonist’s actions by:
- Literally calling the man “The Protagonist,” which we as an audience familiar with the term are met to recognize as ‘this is the good guy.’
- The fact that, in the end, The Protagonist saves the world and therefor whatever actions he took were the correct actions.
- He is also able to save Kat rather than having to make the cliche choice of her or the world, which is what a lesser movie would do. This proves that The Protagonist doesn’t have to sacrifice his ideals to save the world.
- Finally, by sticking to his ideals in spite of everyone else telling him not to, he becomes the founder/head of Tenet and undisputed King of Time Travel because as the idealist of the movie, he is the one who is worthy of the burdensome task ahead. Heavy is the head who wears the crown and all that jazz.
Of course, that is not to say The Protagonist is a resolute skeptic nor a Descartes-esque figure completely devoid of trust. When it is his own life that is at risk at the beginning of the film, he chooses to eat what he believes is a cyanide pill that will end his life. He still, on a fundamental level, believes in the mission of Tenet. He’s willing to sacrifice his own life for it, just not his ideals.
He’s the ultimate embodiment of the duality of Neil’s “nobody cares about the bomb that doesn’t go off” thesis statement. On one hand, a belief in each other and the great vision we can only see a small fraction of is absolutely essential for human society to become what it is capable of being. On the other hand, a healthy dose of skepticism and idealism is absolutely necessary to prevent us from contributing to unthinkable atrocities, such as the blind faith millions of Nazi supporters did when doing their small part to perpetrate The Holocaust. To apply these principles less fatalistically, I’m sure it would give Christopher Nolan a great deal of pleasure (and knowing how much he loves meta-commentary on filmmaking, this may be the route he was more going for here) to know similar principles can be applied to the act of filmmaking. Everyone involved needs to complete their tasks in compliance with the ultimate vision (which is Nolan’s) while also not being a replicable yes man and contributing their own unique perspectives, ideas and talents.
Yes, the ideas of Tenet are ultimately more centrist than anything else. That’s going to piss off many of my politically aligned peers. Most critics of my generation are primarily concerned with a movie’s political messaging and view traditional artistic merit (i.e: stuff like acting choices, shot composition, plot structure. The stuff I’ve been talking about with this blog) as either secondary or completely irrelevant to whether a song/movie/video game is good or bad.
I don’t mean to say that I think Tenet is ideologically perfect or pure. Most notably, I think it would have greatly benefited from straying away from the U.S.A vs. U.S.S.R aesthetic it pulled from the spy movies that inspired it. Rather, what I am saying is that I think it’s far more important for a movie to be nuanced and really make me ponder my own beliefs than it is to be ideologically “pure.” I’ll take Tenet any day over a stink bomb like Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, which has a great message (feminism good, gang violence bad) but is deeply absurd and, fatally, also too outraged by its own politics to acknowledge the absurdity of the Greek comedy it’s adapting. (DISCLAIMER: This is not an indictment on Spike Lee, who is a fantastic and vitally important director. This is only an indictment of my least favorite movie of his that I’ve watched. For the record I’m not counting the story mode of NBA 2k16 with my prior statement. It’s frankly best for all of us to pretend never happened.)
Understanding vs Feeling
One of the early lines of the movie, which was also one of the epic trailer lines in the movie’s marketing, is when the scientist, while explaining the absolute most basic way in which Tenet’s unique brand of time travel works, declares “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.”
It’s pretty solid advice for both The Protagonist and the audience. The Protagonist is in way over his head, and his only chance of succeeding is to play it close to the vest, roll with the punches, and trust his instinct. For the audience, trying to dive into the granular details, or really, any of the details the first time around is a suicide mission. The best approach is to trust a director who has rarely let you down and gather the broad strokes of the plot through sheer absorption. (And also, as I mentioned all the way at the top. It’s highly advisable to watch this bad boy with captions on unless you’re watching it in The Proper IMAX Format the way Mr. Nolan Intended™)
There is this sort of central tension to Christopher Nolan’s entire career where he is walking the two paths of weird ideas and themes driven arthouse auteur and blockbuster spectacle showman at the same time. Nolan gives his audience permission to turn their brains off and submit to pure escapism if that’s what they seek from his movies. However, I think that permission at times leads to a certain niche of viewers dumping him into roughly the same basket as Zach Snyder, another director who makes visually stunning works that discuss big ideas and aren’t always interested in human emotions. (Also, the whole Nolan Bro culture of some of his biggest, cringiest fans does not help in this regard). The important differences here are that 1) Nolan is quite a bit better at Snyder at the visceral dumb action thing and 2) Nolan is actually injecting really interesting, thought provoking ideas into his movies (even if it can sometimes feel forced) while Snyder is just slapping Jesus imagery haphazardly onto things without thought.
I think this tension is what causes Tenet to crack just a little bit. It’s really frustrating not being able to to understand much of anything until the end. While Nolan gives us permission to submit to pure sensation, his other films are quite a bit easier to understand. The joy of going back and watching The Prestige or Inception is filling in the blanks and picking up on all of Nolan’s little details that add believability and depth to his fantastical stories. With Tenet, it’s basically a requirement because the events of the beginning of the movie only make sense after you’ve been given the context of the end of the movie.
However, while there’s way more hurdles to climb to appreciate movies like Tenet than most, my disproportionate passion for this film (Lord mother of god! I’ve cracked the 9,000 word mark and find myself filled with regrets) comes because I see most like minded movie opinion havers I quite like react to this with variations of “meh” or disappointing.” It’s like I said at the top, I just want to have the communal experience of deep appreciation, and if I can convince a few people this movie is a secret masterpiece, than it was all worth it.