“Tenet:” a study in protagonists

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Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Throughout modern film, the nature of the protagonist has drastically changed with the popularization of anti-heroes and blurred lines between good and evil. Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” is fundamentally a study of the very idea of the protagonist, going to the roots of what the nature of the hero truly is. 

This film was obviously a passion project for Nolan as it was still released in theaters despite the pandemic keeping many theaters closed or with reduced seating. Despite this, Nolan and Warner Bros. decided that this movie had to be seen on the big screen. This decision is remarkable and necessary, as the movie is a spectacle with amazing visuals, intricately choreographed fight scenes and impeccable acting. 

The message Nolan sends with this film is very necessary for these times of quarantine and pandemic. The film is, among other things, a take on nihilism and the call of the true hero to be a “true protagonist,” taking his fate into his own hands.

Firstly, the cinematography, done by Hoyte Van Hoytema, is impossible to ignore. The flow of the shots and the placement of the camera is remarkable in every scene. From large battle scenes to small fights in cramped hallways, every visual captures exactly what is necessary and nothing more, allowing the audience to focus on the film’s mind-bending plot and intriguing characters.

Those visuals are capstoned in the astounding stunts that the movie incorporates. The idea that the audience gets to watch a fight between two men, where one of them is fighting backward in time, is hard to describe on paper, and yet Nolan and Hoytema found a way to accomplish that with this film, which should be applauded. 

This cinematography is paired with the film’s amazing score written by Ludwig Göransson. Göransson was Nolan’s first choice to score the film after his usual collaborator, the celebrated Hans Zimmer, was unavailable to write the score for “Tenet” as he was busy working on the upcoming “Dune.” Göransson made a significant impression on this film, and I hope he continues to create great scores like that of “Tenet.”

Another laudable aspect of the film is in its script, written by Nolan himself. The world of Tenet is one of time travel, world domination and entire wars fought over bullets that fire backward, returning to the gun that will fire them in the future. In short, the story has a depth that should be acknowledged and the movie certainly has the trademark “Nolan-movie that-leaves-you-scratching-your-head” feeling. 

Nolan’s story is fueled by its intricate characters and the talented actors who bring them to life. 

The main character is so personified by his existence as the hero that his name in the movie, and on every listing, is “The Protagonist,” which was an amazing choice by Nolan. The acting on all accounts is phenomenal. John David Washington, The Protagonist, manages to enhance his anonymity with his performance by placing his goal at the forefront of his character’s motivation. Washington makes his character a man on a mission with nothing else in the way. 

Inversely, Robert Pattinson turns in another delightful performance as Neil, a mysterious and complex agent who seems to have a hand in everything. Washington and Pattinson play very well off each other, showing differing, but non-competitive, interpretations of what it means to be a hero in “Tenet.”

Kenneth Branagh’s excellent and intimidating performance as this film’s Nietzschean villain, Andrei Sator, is also certainly worth praising. Branagh embraced a role that is far out of the ordinary for him as he is usually either behind the camera directing, or in front of it playing detectives or pompous professors. This role is highly unusual for Branagh to have taken on, but he makes it his own and provides one of the best villains to command the silver screen in 2020.  

When one considers and experiences all of these amazing aspects of the movie, it is easy to understand why Nolan’s new film needed to be released in theaters, and I am relieved that the makers of this movie realized that. I wholeheartedly recommend seeing “Tenet” on the big screen, if not to appreciate the art, then to take a break from all the craziness in the world and trade it for a different, more thrilling kind of excitement.

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