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Working Around Time: Tenet


A CIA agent takes part in a rescue mission that turns out to be a training exercise in Tenet. After the exercise, the agent, known only as Protagonist (John David Washington) becomes an agent for the Tenet organization. His first assignment involves averting a global catastrophe. In a ballistics lab, Protagonist learns about inversion. A gun in his possession has the ability to take bullets into the chamber instead firing them. The bullets were sold by Indian arms dealer Priya Singh (Dimple Kapadia). When Protagonist pays her a visit, he learns she sold the bullets to Russian Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), who has a base of operations in a closed city in that country. It is there that Sator inverts bullets and gets the elements he needs in his plan to ensure the world's obliteration.

To get to Sator, Protagonist and his partner Neil (Robert Pattinson) reach out to Sator's partner, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), an art dealer with a complicated history with Andrei. They learn Kat sold Sator a drawing that turned out to be a forgery. Protagonist and Neil work with a Tenet team commanded by Ives (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) to create a diversion and destroy the forgery. Mystery men, however, emerge in an effort to stop the operation. Later, Kat sets up a meeting for Protagonist and Neil with Sator. Protagonist offers to obtain some plutonium. Something goes wrong in the exchange, though, leaving Tenet to carefully plan an attack on the closed city.


Tenet writer-director Christopher Nolan has made a number of films involving the altering of time. In his breakthrough film Memento, Nolan takes viewers both backwards and forwards in time as a man tries to solve a mystery. In Inception, people can break through linear time to get inside the human mind. Tenet is perhaps his most ambitious effort yet regarding any diversion from the normal time line. Both Sator and Tenet can change things through inversion. The movie visibly includes a car chase that moves both backwards and forwards at the same time. The story might confuse some viewers, but everything Protagonist notices becomes integral in how he and the rest of Tenet proceed. Some has criticized Nolan's dispassionate tone, but that tone is essential for both sides if they expect success. Tenet is very good, but the film of Nolan's that I admire most along these lines is Interstellar. In it, Matthew McConaughey's astronaut Cooper leaves the planet more than once to find a place where life can continue, and discovers he doesn't age in the same way others do. Those moments are both poignant and deeply moving.

Washington, who made his mark on the TV series Ballers and the film BlacKkKlansman, adds another fine mark with his portrayal of Protagonist. He learns as he faces situations that he never faced in the CIA. This man combines knowledge and instinct very well. Pattinson does fine work as Neil, a top agent who teaches Protagonist until the very last words he and his fellow agent have. Branagh shows Sator to be a formidable opponent who doesn't let Protagonist know that he is well aware of Tenet's attempts to stop him. Debicki shines as Kat, the one character who has a different stake than the others. She is the mother to Sator's son, so she thinks about the well-being of her son as she deals with both sides. Michael Caine has a cameo as Sir Michael Crosby, an intelligence agent who briefs Protagonist on his mission.


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Tenet is the one big release that hit the theaters in the necessarily quiet third quarter of 2020. It also might wind up being the least delayed release of those that had been slated to arrive at the cinema at an earlier date. Tenet won the US box office every week in September, but its attendance figures have been underwhelming. In the times I have gone to the movies since the theaters reopened, I have had a virtually solitary experience, for most aren't ready to make their return there. I get the apprehension, but I also want to do my part to try and make sure all of us can enjoy the movie experience in the months and years to come. Tenet shows a director who's still in top form two decades into his career. This film shows an agent who learns his new employer has a unique way to solve a case. Along the way, he learns what it means to be a part of the Tenet team.

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Tenet 3.5 stars. An most interesting race against time.

Tenet trailer

© 2020 Pat Mills

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