Arts movie review

An interview with John David Washington on ‘Tenet,’ a film that couldn’t have been more ‘Nolan’-ized

A mind-bending espionage thriller that gets you thinking non-linearly

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John David Washington and Robert Pattinson star in Christopher Nolan's latest film, ‘Tenet.’
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Directed by Christopher Nolan
Screenplay by Christopher Nolan
Starring John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh
Rated PG-13, Now Playing

The fully crowded opera house in Kiev in the opening scene of Tenet is the exact opposite of what you’d find while watching Tenet in cinemas, thanks to social-distancing norms. Tenet starts off as the Protagonist (John David Washington), a CIA agent, and his team try to extract an exposed American spy from the opera house. However, their mission fails, and the Protagonist is then inducted into a “more-secret-than-secret” organization known as “Tenet.” He is told that a Cold War, one as cold as ice, is coming.

The Protagonist then encounters time-bending entropy reversal technology, i.e., technology that can reverse the entropy of objects. He learns that this technology is from the future and tracks it to Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a Russian oligarch. The rest of the story unfolds as the Protagonist, with the help of others in Tenet, tries to stop Sator from using the inversion technology which could put the past and the present of humanity, not to mention the future, in jeopardy.

Like the Protagonist, we are taken on a time-inverting journey for the rest of the movie, one action sequence at a time, several of them both forwards and backwards. Along this journey, we understand why the movie is named Tenet. The word “TENET” is a palindrome, and the movie itself is a palindrome in some sense. As Laura (Clémence Poésy) says, “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.”

Not only the title of the movie but also the names of certain characters and locations seem to have been taken from the Sator Square, a five-by-five Latin palindrome. In a college roundtable interview, John David Washington explained, “This comes from the mind of Christopher Nolan. Everything is interchangeable except for the point of entropy. So, I think that’s what he was going with. The title itself is a palindrome. And Sator is Rotas (in reverse); Rotas was the vault (Sator’s company security in Oslo Freeport).”

Watching the film for the first time, I wished I had the ability to rewind and play back some of the sequences. Washington himself was mind-blown when he first read through the script of Tenet, thinking, “How did he [Nolan] come up with something like this? This is INSANE!” Washington said “This script took me four hours to read. Like, I would read ten pages, go back five. Read fifteen, go back ten.”

Nolan is known for accomplishing as much as possible in-camera as opposed to resorting to VFX, as evident from the use of a real 747 for the plane crash sequence in Tenet. This, of course, made shooting a lot of sequences harder. Washington described in detail that “the vault sequences to the hallways where the paintings were held took about a week to do. It was quite turbulent. All of it was done in-camera. Hoyte van Hotema (director of photography) was right there with us. I ended up kicking him on one take because he was really in the fight. I was saying ‘I’m sorry!’ and he said, ‘Keep going, keep going!’”

The filming of Tenet was also ambitious in that it took place in seven countries across three continents. Nolan explained that “the international component of Tenet is very important because it’s about a threat to the entire world — to existence as a whole — and those stakes are integral to the drama.”

The score of Tenet, composed by the Oscar-winning Ludwig Göransson, plays an important role in setting the mood of the film and offering insight into the personalities of characters at times. However, there are certain sequences where the score is so dominant that it swallows some of the key conversations.

The performance of the cast of Tenet is mind-blowing, to say the least. There is a scene where the Protagonist and his partner, Neil (Robert Pattinson), hold their breath to survive. Thanks to the actors’ vivid performances, I discovered I was in fact holding my breath! This pretty much sums up how brilliant Washington and Pattinson are in their roles. Branagh convincingly brings the antagonist to life just the way Nolan describes — “an appalling piece of humanity.” Debicki plays Kat (Sator’s wife) with utmost perfection, portraying the struggle of an estranged wife who is kept away from her son. We also see Michael Caine, Nolan’s good luck charm, in a supporting role.

Tenet is undoubtedly Nolan’s most mind-bending film to date. You’d miss key connections if you blinked! The 150-minute masterpiece, which involved shooting around 1.6 million feet of IMAX film, is sure to take you on a bumpy roller-coaster ride except that the ups and downs you encounter are not in space, but in time. As said in the movie, “You have to start looking at the world in a new way.”

The interview has been edited and cut for clarity and length.