Film & TV

Christopher Nolan Pursues Hollywood’s New Tenets

Jack Cutmore-Scott, John David Washington, and Robert Pattinson in Tenet. (Warner Bros. Pictures)
And what culture-czar Obama’s 2020 film list tells us about his continuing influence

Why make a movie called Tenet in an era that seems to have lost track of the concept?

I got the answer to that question when Barack Obama released his annual culture-czar list. Although Christopher Nolan’s opus didn’t make the cut — Obama’s criteria remain unexplained — the films that did (each one inferior to Nolan’s brain-twister) give social-justice import to what “tenet” now means.

Obama bested Nolan’s convoluted sci-fi game by promoting buzzword movies. So, he cites movies about “racial injustice” (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), “Russia” (Beanpole), “community organizing” (Bacurau), “redistribution of wealth” (Nomadland), “black culture” (Soul), “black Diaspora” (Lovers Rock), “health care” (Collective), “ideological righteousness” (Martin Eden), “right side of history” (Mank), “anti-fascism” and “white supremacy” (Let Him Go), “prison-industrial complex” (Time), “politics” (Boys State), “disability” (Crip Camp), and — for Michelle-lovers — “black-girl magic” (Selah and the Spades).

Never a true movie-lover’s list, Obama’s annual inventory proposes new tenets; it’s always a Minister of Propaganda registry highlighting filmmakers who advertise Obama’s delusive political agenda and the plebes who accept it.

For those who can’t see the reality of Obama’s progressive tenets, Nolan’s film works through the deception — albeit to more deception.

Nolan’s Tenet (“It’s Bond on acid,” as the new ads proclaim, quoting one reviewer’s enthusiasm) appeals to the spectacle junkie while seducing the Kubrick nerd. This time Nolan employs an Obama strategy: It features a black lead character, “The Protagonist,” played by John David Washington, the cipher from Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman. Here’s the effect of Obama’s hope-and-change: putting race-hustling at the center of a major Hollywood blockbuster.

It turns out that the gadgety, psychobabbly mission of Nolan’s black hero, to prevent a Russian nemesis (Kenneth Branagh) from starting World War III, syncs with COVID-era dystopian fears and cynicism.

Consider that Tenet’s first three lines never establish national or moral allegiance: “Wake up the Americans,” “We live in a twilight world,” and “Welcome to the afterlife.” These are clues to the transformed America that Obama apparently approves in the films on his list, made by leftist cynics pushing their fashionable social principles.

Obama’s propaganda wing at Netflix is named “Higher Ground” (producers of Selah and the Spades). Tenet reaches for those heights by way of a topsy-turvy moral pursuit to save the life of an endangered white woman who is a victim of the Russian’s toxic masculinity. Washington’s Protagonist is taught new principles by which cause no longer comes before effect — a twist on the current ends-justify-the-means political condition. “Don’t try to understand it,” he’s told.

The Protagonist’s adventures in the “afterlife” put viewers through two-plus hours of violent mayhem, and some reviewers happily accepted this as a simulacrum of COVID chaos, the new Matrix. But perhaps one reason Tenet was a box-office flop is that Nolan unconvincingly blames Russia, choosing the old Cold War because he couldn’t have predicted the new hot war of the China virus.

A deep-state boss (Martin Donovan) tells the Protagonist, “All I have for you is a word, ‘tenet.’ Use it carefully. It will open the right doors.” Yet, these days, few politicians teach tenets to their constituents (or parents to their children). And Nolan’s jaded audience is as ignorant of the meaning of “tenet” as they were of “inception,” the pretentious title of his 2010 film. Nolan reduces the notion of commonly held beliefs or doctrines to a general virtue-signaling — what used to be called “ideology” and now goes by “your truth,” or Obama’s list.

In that sense, Tenet merely caters to political correctness, specifically through the casting of John David Washington. Not just an example of nepotism — he’s the son of Denzel — Washington perpetuates the racial trickery of his previous film, BlacKkKlansman. A zero-charisma performer, Washington reduces this multi-million-dollar epic to a cold-blooded puzzle. Not having inherited his father’s sense of erotic menace, he suggests, in his quasi-flirtation with a white woman (Elizabeth Debicki), an incel idea of sex. Washington’s laughable lack of worldly nous, his dead eyes and notable ghetto diction, render him unfit for sophisticated espionage. This touches on the unworkable idea of a black James Bond — the most absurd of all recent progressive cultural wishes.

Fact is, Tenet should not be taken more seriously than a James Bond movie. As an action film, it isn’t nearly as skillful as a Tom Cruise Mission Impossible commodity. The big set-piece, in which an entire concert audience is put to sleep as a huge heist is carried off, is stolen from the 1968 Rossano Brazzi and Ann-Margret film Criminal Affair (7 uomini e un cervello, “Seven Men and a Brain”). Nolan uses backward slow-motion — a visual version of what music producers calls “backmasking.” This fancy “reverse logic” depends on cinematic illiteracy, especially as seen in the second-hour action montages that are less adroit than the slapstick of the John Wick movies. The climax (a cargo jet crashing into a building to echo either 9/11 or Airplane) is just Nolan’s usual big-budget wink at nihilism.

Ultimately, Washington’s ruinous miscasting proves progressive ideology has so infected the upper echelon of Hollywood filmmaking that even a culturally conservative artist such as Nolan (whose end credits boast that he shoots and edits on film as opposed to the current digital trend) will deaden his own movie. Nolan uses the semiotics of his star’s Protagonist as a new Prometheus in a half-baked experiment of racial representation. Or are we meant to suddenly pretend that “color-blind casting” has become a shibboleth — a new password — despite this being the age of identity politics?

The new tenet of Tenet complies with Obama’s secretive confusion of social and cultural ethics. Both Obama’s list and Nolan’s film demonstrate a disorienting fondness for movies as social-justice tracts.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.