All eyes on Tenet, the spy movie with everything to prove

Covid-19 crisis means Christopher Nolan’s new film will be a bellwether for all cinema

After some Covid-19 related shuffling, the Hollywood blockbuster will return in no little style on August 26th. Tenet, the 11th feature from Christopher Nolan, has leaped from its original July 17th release date to an international debut in late August and a North American opening – in major cities only – on September 3rd.

At a moment when the theatrical circuit is holding out for a tentpole that will bring audiences back to cinemas, all eyes are on Tenet. Last May, the Washington Post quoted a Cassandra warning from an anonymous Hollywood studio insider: “. . . If Tenet doesn’t come out or doesn’t succeed, every other company goes home. It’s no movies until Christmas.” A recent Variety report noted that Tenet must “take in roughly $700 million globally to make a profit”.

If the Tenet cast and crew are feeling the weight of being the Film That Can Save Hollywood, or the heat from their investors, they are not letting on.

“There’s always a mental pressure when you open any film in any set of circumstances, to be honest,” says Emma Thomas, who has produced every film that her husband Christopher Nolan has made since they met in college. “I don’t see this as being any different in that sense. Obviously we’re just excited to put the film out there in theatres. And we’ll be nervous about it. But we would be nervous anyway.”


Thus far, Nolan has been nominated for five Academy Awards, five British Academy Film Awards and six Golden Globe Awards. In 2012, he became the youngest director to have a star at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles. Last year, he was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2019 New Year Honours. The accolades are nice, says Thomas, but they are not a priority.

“We don’t make films for the academy,” she says.”We make films for audiences. Ultimately that’s the most important thing for us: if the film has been successful with audiences. Of course it’s nice to get awards and it’s nice to be a part of all that, but ultimately I would always rather make a film that speaks to audiences. I’m much prouder of that, of a film that makes people feel something; a film that people want to enjoy and experience.”

Even before the Covid crisis, Tenet was a big deal. With a run time of 150 minutes, a globetrotting shoot that took in Denmark, Estonia, India, Italy, Norway, the United Kingdom and United States, and a reported $225 million production budget, Tenet is Thomas and Nolan’s grandest gambit to date.

“Every time he writes a script, I look at the front page and take a deep breath,” says Thomas. “But this is bigger in scale and ambition than anything before. With every movie, we have the same conversation. Are we going to do a small one this time? In a world where studios have become more and more risk averse, we’ve just been lucky that every movie we’ve done has worked. So we keep on capitalising on the last movie if that makes sense.

“What drove me nuts with this film was the massive number of set pieces. With the films that we’ve done we always know that one thing that’s going to challenge everybody. With The Dark Knight it was probably the hospital blowing.

When I found out that Christopher Nolan wanted to meet me, that right there was a victory

“With Tenet it felt like every time we would do one of those big things, you relax for five minutes and then you look at the set schedule for next week and then there’s another one. We have a live, very large car chase in the film that was tricky to shoot for reasons that you’ll see.”

One of those reasons was Robert Pattinson.

“There was a scene where we went about five miles of a freeway in Estonia with hundreds of cars,” recalls the English actor.

“So John David gets in the passenger seat and Chris is like just follow the camera car. Take it easy the first time. John David turns to me and said: ‘Are you like a really good driver or something. So I’m s***ting myself as I’m whipping between cars at 80 miles an hour and Chris is behaving like this is completely normal.”

Nolan, not unlike the characters in his 2006 intrigue The Prestige, knows how to put on a show and how to work a misdirection. His preference for large format film-making has added to the sense of occasion around his films. His fans, the Nolanistas, are legion and loyal.

The fiercely-guarded Tenet has amplified its own mystique with a much-studied trailer and a protagonist, played by John David Washington, who is called Protagonist. Washington, the impressive star of BLacKKKlansman and son of Denzel, is Nolanista and proud.

“When I found out that Christopher Nolan wanted to meet me, that right there was a victory,” says Washington. “No matter what happened after that, the fact that this legend wanted to talk to me felt like that’s a win. No matter what happens, I can say I got to meet Christopher Nolan. When I got a follow-up call, I was screaming at the top of my voice. And then I got invited to his office and I was given two hours to read the script. And I kept thinking: how are we going to shoot this?

A lot of the stuff in this movie is expositional world-building stuff and a dense story. And the script makes that accessible to a layman

“I remember the Sunday before we started shooting, we had a family barbecue. It was like they were sending me off to the Christopher Nolan film grad school. My mind was blown every day. I’d walk on set and Christopher Nolan would say: ‘Good morning’. And I’d say: ‘Oh my God, it’s Christopher Nolan; did you all hear that?’ After that first week of shooting – I can’t lie – I wasn’t supposed to but I had to go and talk to my mom about it because it was such an incredible experience.”

Pattinson wasn’t any better at keeping secrets: “It’s funny because Chris is so secretive about everything to do with his movies,” says the actor, who was shooting Matt Reeves’ The Batman when that production was temporarily halted in February. “And then I had to be really secretive about Batman stuff. So I had to lie to Chris about having to go for a screen test – I said I had a family emergency. And as soon as I said ‘it’s a family emergency’ he said: ‘You’re doing the Batman addition, aren’t you?’”

Tenet has proved useful in Pattinson’s Batman regime. When your screen partner is John David Washington – a high-school track star and a former professional running back with the St Louis Rams and Sacramento Mountain Lions – it can be tricky to keep up.

“When I’m running on screen I’m generally paired with John David who is an ex-NFL player so it was the most unfair thing in the world,” says Pattinson. “The maximum workout I do most of the time is a casual stroll. John David can run all day long. It was good that I ended up being pretty fit. But definitely, at the beginning, there were days I just could not walk afterwards.”

Late last year, when a 6½-minute prologue played ahead of select Imax screenings of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, fans and trade papers reported temporal jumps, which would certainly be in keeping with the filmmaker’s playful approach to chronology and subjectivity. The film – according to best guesses – follows a secret agent with skills that may or may not include time manipulation – on a mission to stop World War III. The supporting cast includes Elizabeth Debicki (Widows), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass) and Nolan regular Michael Caine.

Pattinson has definitely stated, in a Nolan approved soundbite, that Tenet is not a time-travelling film. Then again, by his own admission, he may not be the most reliable source.

“When I first read it both Chris and Emma were saying: did you read this properly because everyone else took another two hours?” says Pattinson, blushing a little via Zoom. “And I said: Oh s**t. Right up until the last week of the shoot, I was talking to John David (Washington) and asking him some pretty fundamental questions about who my character was. And John David was like: ‘Wait, you don’t know this?’ But it’s complicated! You’re not just being fed the story.

“You’re trying to uncover the mystery at the same time as the characters in the movie are. A lot of the stuff in this movie is expositional world-building stuff and a dense story. And the script makes that accessible to a layman. And that’s really difficult to get that balance of making it sound like natural dialogue and trying to get across information that you probably need a PhD to understand properly. And then you have to put it in the mouth of someone like me, who can barely add.”

Kenneth Branagh, who plays what John David Washington describes as Tenet’s “terrifying villain”, says he read the script more times than any other project in his long, distinguished career.

“It was darker than anything I’ve ever played,” he says of Tenet’s Russian oligarch. “Chris does his homework so he knew what I had done before and what he didn’t want from me. He kept saying: ‘You know this character has to be unremittingly evil?’ Until finally, on the last day he said, regarding your character and the darkness? You really understood the memo.”

There have been only two occasions, since Branagh’ screen debut in 1982, when he found himself on set thinking: ‘What the hell is going on?’ Both happened during the making of Tenet.

“The sense of scale here, even on the page, is something else,” says Branagh. “It plays as a bang-up entertainment but there’s a tonne more to it. Even with Dunkirk, and the scale of that, I was aware of my character’s relatively contained storyline.

“This the fabric of the script weaves in so many characters across so many countries and layers of plot and meaning. The conceit is really bold. It’s one of those things that’s almost unique to Chris Nolan. It’s a massive, action-packed blockbuster that reads as a really personal movie with intellectual dazzle.”

Regarding the film’s scientific and epistemological themes, Branagh laughs as he quotes Michael Caine’s line about Inception.

“Michael said: ‘The way I understand the film, is that all the scenes with me are real and everything else is made up.’”

Tenet opens in cinemas on Wednesday, August 26th

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic