In an interview promoting Tenet, Robert Pattinson captured the appeal of Christopher Nolan’s movies: “You can either really, really dig into it, find so many different threads to pull, or you can appreciate it as a big, massive adventure movie, and you don’t even need to know what’s happening that much.” Pulling on one such thread, Jesse Russell’s new book The Political Christopher Nolan argues that Nolan’s villains present philosophical challenges to the Anglo-American liberal order, and the hero’s victory consistently validates the status quo.

Although the book suffers from typos and repetitiveness, Russell’s premise stimulates deeper, symbolic thinking. For instance, in the opening robbery scene of The Dark Knight, we watch goons in Joker masks sequentially kill other members of the crew once their part of the heist is complete. Russell sees this disposal of “employees” as a parody of the instability and vulnerability of late capitalism for workers. Of course, this scene is so entertaining, you may never have considered the political underpinnings of The Joker’s operation.

The book is divided into seven chapters, each devoted to one film, beginning with Memento (2000) and ending at Tenet (2020). Eventually, the conclusion of each chapter becomes predictable—Christopher Nolan believes the Anglo-American order is worth protecting, even if it is imperfect—yet Russell’s close reading is still thought-provoking. When faced with his argument that Guy Pearce’s character in Memento may well be a nihilistic serial killing faking a mental condition, you have to reckon with the movie beyond, “That was really cool, but I’m not quite sure what happened.”

Russell’s last chapter on Tenet, “Recruiting Blackness,” considers the implications of Nolan’s first black lead, John David Washington. You may recall Tenet did not fare well at the box office, both due to its release during 2020 while many were staying away from theaters and because many found its premise too complicated. Russell argues that Washington’s character, simply called “The Protagonist,” is “ultimately a servant of empire and power. He must sacrifice his physical and mental health in the service of an Anglo-American or Western European dominated world.”

In this reading, a “black James Bond,” which many saw in Washington’s character, is essentially an oxymoron. A white James Bond can be a hero, but when a black James Bond saves the world, he is subordinating himself to the white-dominated racial hierarchy, sacrificing himself to protect his oppressors. Here, Russell takes a view closer to Audre Lorde’s: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” However, Nolan’s view on incorporating black citizens into Western democracies is decidedly more optimistic, more a fulfillment of Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision.

To back up a bit, Tenet is confusing and complex, the kind of movie that almost requires a post-hoc explainer YouTube video. On the simplest level, John David Washington’s character, in the future, is running a world-saving time travel intelligence operation. Because of the time travel mechanic, as his present self moves through time, he begins to understand all the layers and plans his future self created. He goes from feeling lost and manipulated to realizing that he is actually “the Protagonist,” the one who planned the whole operation in the future.

The crux of the film is this tension between who the main characters are and who they will become. At the start of the film, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) sees a woman gracefully dive into the water with a freedom she envies, but that turns out to be a future version of herself. Neil (Robert Pattinson) struggles to follow a path he knows will bring pain and likely his own death but will save the world in the process.

For Russell to say “Neil has the upper hand in this Black and white ‘buddy drama’” undervalues the impact of the time travel. “The Protagonist” may well have Neil explaining things to him for much of the film, and this may make him seem ignorant or weak, but this is an illusion. We learn at the climax that Neil was recruited by and works for “The Protagonist,” meaning “The Protagonist” has a bright future beckoning, despite the injustice and confusion of his present.

Tenet is the biggest budget, original film to cast a black lead, and the film’s production mirrors its premise. John David Washington is a trailblazer, but Nolan did not draw attention to that in the film’s marketing or script. Instead, he treats it as unremarkable—I cast a talented actor for a leading role—as if to say, “this should be and will become unremarkable.” Similarly, “The Protagonist” moves in a world of billionaires and spies where he seems to be lost or out of place, but it turns out, he is actually the one in control.

Insofar as Washington’s race is part of the film, Nolan imagines a future where a “black James Bond” would be put in charge when the world is on the line, and his sacrifice would be noble and honored. “The Protagonist” nearly leaves the intelligence community at the film’s opening—a symbolic rejection of the West—but he chooses to stay, and his future self reaches back to help him save and stick by the West.

In many ways, Nolan pushed the envelope with Tenet. Inception was the culmination of ten years of work; Tenet took twenty. Memento had a bullet symbolically moving backwards and a structural time reversal, but Tenet made the bullet’s movement physical, the inverted timeline a reality. He flipped an eighteen-wheeler for The Dark Knight, but for Tenet, he rammed a 747 into a hangar. But, the political conclusion of the piece is consistent with his past work: facing critiques of race and class, he concludes that the liberal order is worth improving upon rather than upending.

In Tenet, the scientist who invented the time travel technology was called “the Oppenheimer of her day.” Nolan’s new film is a biopic of Oppenheimer himself. Whether he is working in a hypothetical future or our historical past, cataclysmic change seems to be on Nolan’s mind. If the past twenty-five years are any indication, Oppenheimer will be wonderfully entertaining at first glance but surprisingly deep on closer inspection. And since it is Nolan—who shoots on film and pioneered IMAX—you will want to see it in theaters.

Image credit via Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. “we watch goons in Joker masks sequentially kill other members of the crew once their part of the heist is complete. Russell sees this disposal of “employees” as a parody of the instability and vulnerability of late capitalism for workers.”
    Yikes, that’s a stretch. Remember what the Joker does with that huge pile of money? He burns it. How is that a metaphor of “late capitalism”? He’s a nihilist who wants to destroy “the system” and thinks that will reveal the savage nature of people, but the movie shows spontaneous bottom-up order asserting itself, not chaos and destruction. (Then the Two-Face act is about the conflict between Fairness and Justice, but it feels like Nolan tried to stuff too much into one movie, not the only time he’s done that, of course).
    I guess you could consider that about “the Anglo-American liberal order”, but of course there is zero consensus about what that means anymore. Certainly the despicable surveillance state we are living in now has nothing to do with what anyone would have recognized as such a few decades ago.

    • Generally I agree with you, Brian. In particular, killing employees in sequence to keep a crime secret and/or to retain a higher fraction of the take is a very old meme that can be seen in many movies. I think Russell over-interpreted again.

  2. Overall an interesting review of a confusing movie that is rated significantly lower than Inception, and didn’t strike me as its sequel. You seem to accept Russell’s ideology without much challenge, such as using “trailblazer” after quoting him:

    “A white James Bond can be a hero, but when a black James Bond saves the world, he is subordinating himself to the white-dominated racial hierarchy, sacrificing himself to protect his oppressors.”

    It sounds like you both have missed the same movies: Wesley Snipes (e.g., the sequel to Fugitive, the Blade trilogy), Denzel Washington (numerous action movies, inc. the remake of Equalizer), even Will Smith in Wild, Wild West, and of course the big budget Black Panther where the hero saves the world as well as recovering his kingdom.

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