Few are the subjects upon which, without abusing the patience of the reader, or the charitable goodwill of a dear friend, I’m able to expatiate. While I might talk extensively on any number of topics, to which the paucity of my competence is almost always unequal, I do so meaningfully on only a few. One subject to which the former camp is home, over which I feign no mastery and onto which my narrow abilities can’t hope but grip, is the cinematic work of the estimable Christopher Nolan, the English-born, Hollywood-beloved artist by whom the recent film Tenet was both written and directed.
I’ll not here attempt an exegesis of a film whose stated intention was not to be understood. To do so would be folly, and those critical writers committed to so airy a task are putting their pens to the winds and scribbling in vain. That Nolan wished Tenet to be unintelligible and, for that reason, incompletely enjoyed, was quite clear from the outset of the film. From that point until its end, the action was vigorous but desultory, the dialogue intricate but inaudible, the plot partially developed, the score wholly overwhelming, and the characters frankly superficial. Not even the intrepid “protagonist” (literally titled as such) proved a figure into whom much emotion could be invested. Such was the experience of an audience member who, in desperation, was looking for solid ground on which to stand, and a tangible character with whom to connect.
While equally as ambitious, it was far more circuitous than his prior work, Inception, with which, for obvious reasons, it’s been widely compared. The comparison, in some ways, is apt. Both films play, more or less successfully, with the theme of time. In both, its ephemerality is suspended, as it comes to be manipulated in the hands of a degenerating, fighting humankind. Both force the viewer to think in a dimension into which he seldom brings himself, yet out of which, upon reflection, he never fully steps. However, its treatment in the earlier film, Inception, must be judged the greater achievement of the two. Tenet dealt with its mergence and simultaneity as the past, with malign and nefarious motives, approached the present, and the present ambled near a future toward which it hesitatingly stepped. Inception relied on the strange a-temporality of dreams, deadly fantasies into which, clouded by an unarousable stupor, its cadre of heroes and villains slipped.
Tenet ultimately lacked the novelty, cohesion, strength of cast, and unity of action for which Inception—though inscrutable in its own right—was so feverishly celebrated. Tenet may, for those reasons, fail to inherit the plaudits of which its predecessor (released, much to my disbelief, an entire decade ago; the time does fly!) was undoubtedly more deserving.
My sincere analysis of the film, my terse and honest criticism of Nolan’s latest work, must end with that thought. However perfunctorily pursued, and ineloquently stated, that’s all I have to say. It’s not a lack of interest that compels me to abort so prematurely the daunting nature of this theme, but an exhaustion of those meager abilities beyond which, as you can tell, I can’t ascend.
I will append, however, one final note. It pertains to the trite way in which villainous characters are generally cast. In Tenet, Nolan employs as his antagonist the loathsome Andrei Sator, played by the Shakespearean Irishman, Kenneth Branagh. Sator, as his Sovietized name, predilection for strong drink, and coarse accent combine to suggest, is a Russian oligarch of the worst kind. He’s like modern-day Putin, but more combustible, or a resuscitated Stalin, but far more murderous and savvy. Aside from being a dastard son of that flagitious state, Sator is an arms-dealer, nuclear -promulgator, sadist, misogynist, and time-traveler—the eastern menace of whom our diverse lot of heroes are in so constant a pursuit. While the part is played frighteningly well, and the depth of Sator’s turpitude is never completely plumbed, I found myself at once frustrated and bored by the sight of yet another Russian malcontent bent on destroying the world.
Has this figure not yet exhausted his time on the stage, well-spent, doubtless, especially during the height of the Cold War and the perilous aftermath to which it yielded? Have we not seen one bad-guy after another, paraded before our eyes, emerging in sequence as if just released from an annual politburo meeting? Have we not come to associate, as if trained by the eminent Pavlov himself, the sound of a Russian accent with malicious, world-conquering deeds? Those eponymous dogs, whose behavior was conditioned by the sage scientist, knew no better; irrational beasts, they salivated unconsciously with the bell’s every ring. What excuse have we as humans, in whom the sound of a Russian speaker now incites a thoughtless reflex to cringe?
Although Russia persists in the sphere of international relations as a bad and contemptible apple, as a kind of geographically expansive persona non grata to which no Western country wishes to be seen as a friend, so far as the US is concerned, it’s long since forsaken its place as a primary existential threat. Though still bad, it’s far from the worst. New countries, namely China and—to a much lesser extent—Iran, have stepped up to fill that role. It’s time, I think, that our class of filmmakers, daring artists as they proclaim to be, begin to reflect in their movies the reality of this fact.
I know the reasons why they won’t, as does every viewer whose eyes have become decreasingly glued to the screen. The Russian villain is predictable and hackneyed. We’ve become desensitized to his long-forgotten evils, and he’s no longer a source by whom we’re genuinely intimidated. But the Chinese autocrat or the Iranian mullah? They might very nicely do the trick. When will Hollywood replace our tired Russian with the fresh Chinese despot or the Iranian thug, one whose crimes in this world far exceed those that can be imagined and formatted for a DVD? When will it steel itself to Asiatic criticism, accept the unprofitability of its “offensive” choice, liberate itself of foreign censorship, and draw villains as they ought to be drawn in the current age?
I was hopeful that Tenet might do exactly that. Instead, like all other American films of which the past two decades have been productive, it traveled back in time, yet again, and chose as its villain yet another Russian. Let us, instead, move into the future, boldly into an exuberant and free age, and cease cowering at the threat of the Orient’s genocidal, fascistic, communist regimes.