Audrey Kupferberg: Tenet | WAMC

Audrey Kupferberg: Tenet

Mar 30, 2021

Audrey Kupferberg
Credit WAMC

Tenet is the most recent film produced, written, and directed by Christopher Nolan.  It’s up for two Oscars, one for Best Achievement in Visual Effects and one for Best Achievement in Production Design.  At the age of fifty, Nolan has earned a slew of award nominations for his gifted, cerebral, sometimes nonlinear approach to filmmaking. 

More than twenty years ago, Nolan made a highly original, low-budget feature called Following.  It’s the story of a writer who follows someone each day, and then becomes involved with a robber.  Two years later, with his unconventional film Memento, which was written with his brother Jonathan, Nolan presented a much more complicated low-budget masterpiece.  Memento tells the story of a man with no memory who is searching for the person who murdered his wife.  Filmed in a noir fashion, it needs to be seen to be fully appreciated.  Reading about it is taking you only half-way to the originality, the immense quality of this work.

After his brilliant work on Inception and the Batman films, and the incredibly complicated Dunkirk, Nolan has made Tenet.  It’s nonlinear, cerebral, very high-budget.  I have read that Christopher Nolan is besotted by James Bond.  If I had not known that before, I would have guessed his devotion by the events of the first half of Tenet. 

John David Washington plays a character only known as the Protagonist.  Who is this character?  What in his background qualifies him to be a James Bond-like character, a man given the mission to save the world?  All we know is that he belongs to a group whose membership use the word “tenet”. With a more traditional story, we would know about the Protagonist’s life.  And I believe that it hurts the story not to drop information of his background into the dialog.

The evildoer who could and might end the world is Sabor, a Ukrainian, “the most dangerous arms dealer in the world,” played with great vitality by Kenneth Branagh.  In addition, Robert Pattinson and Elizabeth Debicki play strong characters.  Nolan even gives a nod to Michael Caine in a short-but-sweet scene.

Aside from exciting acting, Tenet offers a beautifully stylized production.  High style in editing, costumes, set decoration, gun fights, explosions, hand-to-hand combat— and one of the most unique car chases I have seen!  There are fascinating slim, regal women and fit, strong-jawed, attractive men.  Most of the characters show emotion, but the viewer doesn’t always get their motivation. And, as James Bond, the Protagonist visits international hotspots -- Kiev, Mumbai, Oslo, and London. 

However, with its story’s aim to save the world, Tenet offer viewers only a vague plot.  The story involves an art forgery, then moving freight through freeports, then acquiring weapons grade Plutonium-241.  And all the while, the important back story includes the theory of inverting time, a concept that seems to be an obsession of Christopher Nolan.  And it is this obsession which can be off-putting to viewers who find difficulty in following his particular brand of nonlinear editing.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

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