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After repeated delays, we finally get to see Christopher Nolan’s tenth Hollywood movie, Tenet, the best movie of 2020, and the one most likely to revive cinema. If we are ever going to return to theaters, now is the time. Nolan has famously never failed and his new work of wonder brings together time-traveling sci-fi and Bond espionage to deal with our civilizational decadence. It’s cheap at the price, and the price is $200 million.
Nolan first took up the problem of the end of civilization in Batman Begins (2005) and the trilogy it opened, which among other things predicted Antifa riots and a left-wing attack on America rehearsing the French Revolution. So we can say decadence has been Nolan’s main poetic preoccupation. He offered his judgment of our political fortunes in Dunkirk (2017), his only historical picture: We urgently need manliness, since we’re at the beginning of a terrible struggle.
Tenet confirms that judgment. It’s the third of a series of stories pairing the defense of political freedom with mind control and time travel. I’ve already written about Inception (2010), where time expands in the dreaming mind, making it possible to change the future. Then, in Interstellar (2014), time travel is achieved by relativistic gravitational effects, so far as bodies are concerned, and then awakened in the mind by the permanence of human love.
Inception deals with the threat of technological control of humanity by energy corporations; the apocalypse in Interstellar is, on the other hand, environmental—the planet is dying. Tenet combines the two and also unites the powers of their protagonists, Inception’s dream thief, or mastermind, and Interstellar’s Stoic hero. As he refines his story of saving civilization, Nolan shows them as two faces of the same man, before and after acquiring the wisdom poets teach.
The story is as simple as any Bond movie: A mad Russian oligarch who has entered into the British establishment and also has control of strategic resources, Sator (played by Kenneth Branagh), is threatening to blow up the planet as a kind of revenge. Our nameless Protagonist, a CIA operative (John David Washington), tries to stop him by getting involved with Priya (Dimple Kapadia), an arms dealer who knows Sator’s secret business. He undertakes this with the help of a sidekick from British intelligence, Neil (Robert Pattinson, the new beta-male Batman). Ultimately, he gets to the madman with the help of Sator’s estranged English wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki).
But then comes the science fiction element grappling with mankind’s destiny—the Protagonist is recruited by Tenet, a secret organization that practices a kind of time travel to save humanity from our modern curse, infinite power without wisdom, which leads to what we might call repeated suicide attempts by our elites. Sator is not the only madman—there are others in the future who help him, a sorry testament to our unchanging nature.
The Protagonist is black, a symbol of America’s commitment to equality and therefore to human nature. His relationship with the English woman is a symbol of the “special relationship” and also suggests the distinction between power and wisdom—she has hard-bought knowledge the Protagonist needs. The Russian antagonist is both a reminder of how Russian oligarchs’ money has corrupted England and a symbol of the real problem we’re facing, which cannot be named publicly—China.
These political symbols point to a deeper problem, mankind’s rebellion against necessity and our remarkable antagonist’s nihilism—he’s not merely a madman or a megalomaniac, he’s a man who’s achieved enormous power and feels its emptiness in his bones. This is a dark lesson: The failure to acquire what we wish by the powers at our disposal might lead us to use our powers to self-destruct. It’s ultimately the lesson of tragedy: Desire defeated returns as revenge. This is also a long-term concern of Nolan’s, who knows all too well that decadence is typified by powerful madmen who seem rational from a conventional point of view, until it may be too late to stop them.
The Problem of Education
I don’t want to spoil the surprises, so I give you an analogy: Nolan presents the relation of future to present as that of Millennials to Boomers—since Boomers own everything, they are responsible for all our catastrophes, and deserve all the revenge the young can take on them. Madness—riots, looting, cancel culture—looks like justice to the elites who give mobs power. The future taking revenge on the past—this is the madness at work in Tenet.
Revenge presents itself to people maddened by grief or jealousy as a way to change history. This is why mad people don’t worry about the consequences of their actions. Just think of our partisans, who act as though tit for tat violence is the only theory of causation they need in order to master politics and achieve every worthy purpose. And when outraging adversaries fail to change the past, the lies and historical revisionism begin.
Nolan’s reference to time travel, the palindrome tenet, suggests an alternative to madness. A tenet is a belief we hold and which we affirm. It doesn’t have the same status as the theoretical demonstrations of mathematics—but the complexity and uncertainty of human affairs does not preclude our action in light of the best judgments we can form. In emphasizing the fact that we act on our beliefs, the story points to the limits of our knowledge—that is not an excuse from acquiring knowledge, but a necessary part of political education.
Our Protagonist wins because Nolan wrote the story, but does not his victory teach us something fundamentally true about ourselves? Fiction which aims to tell the truth is the opposite of the mad lies typical of our politics, but it has the same purpose—to form our souls. Tenet is the account of the education of the Protagonist. First, by theoretical explanations about the possibility of time travel, to use the remarkable new technologies at his disposal. Secondly, there’s self-knowledge—the Protagonist is not an everyman, but a ruler in the making, who has to learn to deal with the problems of decadence. Violence is necessary, but when and how to use it turns out to be complicated by the problems of decadence and nihilism. Not only is the enemy among us, but we cannot unite for a fight. Betrayal and paralysis seem almost impossible to avoid. Hence the use of a CIA operative rather than a more respectable, law-bound protagonist, and the repeated use of the typical spy phrase “We live in a twilight world”: a new sci-fi Cold War is beginning.
It’s not an accident that Nolan unites time travel with the political espionage story—the Protagonist’s education is essentially political. He’s not supposed to solve a puzzle as much as to learn to judge men and events in order to make friends, allies, and enemies. It is through understanding his friends’ and allies’ motivations when they’re in danger that he can begin to understand his enemy, and then deal with the surprises a clever, determined enemy will create. This is why his first lesson, in the opening sequence, is about death’s inevitability—time for us is mortality, and a hero had better be willing to risk dying.
You can think of prediction both as something from the future coming back to the past and as prudence—judging what follows from necessity or at least what is likely in certain circumstances and preparing for the consequences. And predicting the future is our continuous obsession in every technological enterprise, especially since we fear the future brings terrible things to us, and since our efforts to make the world predictable and safe keep failing in shocking ways. Nolan’s intention here is to point out how inscrutable someone else’s mind is, and how technology depends on our intentions.
This is the meaning of the fascinating choreography of the action sequences that play both forward and backward in time, symbolized by red and blue, in reference to the Doppler effect of light: light going away from you shifts to red, light incoming—blue. Going back in time is not about fulfilling fantasies born of regret, but about learning from one’s own mistakes, therefore turning the bad to the good, and observing necessity. Nolan wants to reconcile the teaching of physics with our experience as moral animals—that we are free, we have choices, we could do one thing or another. He thinks our freedom depends on acting prudently, in which case necessity and freedom align, since to act imprudently would be self-destructive and it would identify freedom with madness. He is not interested in changing the past, but in showing that even if we got the power we want out of technology, we’d still be stuck with judging prudently how to use it. Not even the future, whatever powers it holds, could remove the limits of human nature.
Now, this is also part of Nolan’s advice to his audience—this is a movie you’ll want to see a couple of times, a movie that fascinates and makes you ask pointed questions about our motives and our ability to understand ourselves. But after talking about his intention, the problem of revenge, and how poetic education works, I offer you one more reflection before you get to the theaters. How does all this fit with the genre—espionage?
Nolan chose espionage because it exposes the limits of politics. Justice is limited by nature, since realism about politics demands we recognize there are enemies and they may be very dangerous. Indeed, espionage is warfare writ small and therefore reveals the human soul in a way nothing else does—we find out our weaknesses only by our greatest enemies—this leads to the suggestion that self-knowledge is the most dangerous thing there is. This is the opposite of moralistic good intentions.
I have avoided spoilers, since the movie is just now arriving in theaters. But I hope to have shown you what you need to have on your mind watching this amazing movie—Nolan’s great surprises depend on thinking certain thoughts for yourself, following his suggestions. The complexity of the plot, above all, is only there to imitate the complexity of the problem of the soul. This is a natural secret.