Christopher Nolan’s Tenet and the Tenets of Progressive Faith

A few nights after I saw Tenet, the new Christopher Nolan movie, the rioters in Portland attacked the Oregon Historical Society building, near where I live and work. They caused thousands of dollars of damage and also demolished nearby statues of Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. I’ve been thinking about this in connection with the movie.

As glowering and atmospheric as Dunkirk, Nolan’s previous film about World War Two, Tenet isn’t historical like Dunkirk. It’s not even chronological. The premise in the new sci-fi thriller is that objects and people can be “inverted,” so that they move through time in reverse. This gives rise to all kinds of complicated paradoxes, though moviegoers who try to pay too granular attention to the plot will grow frustrated. As a character suggests helpfully at the beginning: “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.”

Much of the film’s logic is visual. And it is glorious, at least if you are stirred by watching a military battalion fight a “temporal pincer” movement in which one company attacks moving forward, and the other backward, in time. In formal terms, Nolan set himself the challenge of making a palindrome (like the title) of a story, in which the Protagonist (that is how he’s referred to in the credits, played by John David Washington) moves forward normally in time until the Aristotelian turning-point, at which the temporal flow reverses and we move backward through the very film we have already seen. Not that everything stays the same; it’s really more of a musical rondo than a palindrome.

Alright, so there are some fun effects—though in a sense there’s nothing new here, technically speaking, that wasn’t already implicit when film pioneer Eadweard Muybridge ran his zoopraxiscope in reverse in the 1880s. And, to be sure, the performances are wonderful, especially that of the gladiola-like Elizabeth Debicki. But is there a point to it all?

Yes, and as I hinted at the start, the movie is, pardon the pun, timely. Tenet has a conventional villain (played with feral ruthlessness by Kenneth Branaugh) but we learn along the way that he is only a front man for the real enemy. And who is that? No less than: the future. “The future is trying to kill us,” explains one of the characters. Nolan leaves the precise details vague; there is a gesture at the environmental damage we in the present are said to be causing. But the point is that our descendants have found us wanting and have decided to solve the problem by destroying us, their past.

In other words, Nolan gives us the metaphysics of much of the left, dramatized with explosions and spy gear. It is part of the progressive faith that the future is always better and more moral. Why, then, should the future not try to kill us, we who were inconsiderate enough to be born in the past, and who always seem to hold back the better world just around the corner? The Terminator movies made the future’s machines the murderous enemy. Tenet suggests that the really genocidal potential comes from people convinced that chronology is destiny.

Most progressives trust that, if we can just push aside whatever forces of reaction are holding the future back, we’ll get there without too much violence. But their radical kin, from the terrorists of revolutionary France, to the Bolsheviks, to Antifa, have often seen themselves as a vanguard commando force, receiving their marching orders from the future. They are duty-bound to destroy those who cling to the past, whether in the form of statues, historical archives, or people.

Those of us who wonder what happens to a society that decides it should dispense with its past may ask, as one of the characters in the film does: what about the grandfather paradox? That is, if you travel back in time and kill your own grandfather, wouldn’t that erase your own existence? Perhaps, but, says another character grimly: “in the future, those in power clearly believe that one can… kick grandfather down the stairs, gouge his eyes out, and slit his throat without consequences.” Welcome to Portland.

So how do you fight the future? To some extent, you can’t. Yet Nolan gives us heroes who do not give in to historical determinism. They do not confuse their position on a timeline with morality. While navigating the film’s temporal paradoxes, the Protagonist and his comrades insist on the meaning of choice, of good and evil, of the value of a human life in itself and not from the vantage point of some imagined future.

In this, Tenet is a sci-fi extension of Dunkirk, a film that emphasized a heroism not based on a retrospective alignment with “the arc of history,” but on loyalty and service, bravery and decency, in the present. Watching Dunkirk, we know the outcome of World War Two, but the soldiers and ordinary civilians who sacrificed to evacuate the Allied forces did not. Theirs was the moral choice.

These themes spice, but never distract from, Tenet’s thrill ride. Yet they make Nolan’s latest movie very much a film for our future-battered present.

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