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How ‘Tenet’ Helps Explain ‘Oppenheimer’

Christopher Nolan seems primed for the sort of coronation the Oscars bestow now and again — his film “Oppenheimer’s” sweep of precursor awards has had a sort of lumbering majesty to it, a sense that the grandest spectacle of the year is about to get a commensurate celebration from the Dolby Theatre stage.

There’s a pleasing symmetry to the idea: “Oppenheimer” is not a sentimental favorite from the “CODA” school, or a sweltering, messy emotional high-wire act like “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” It’s a coolly logical piece of work, and it represents the year’s logical choice. It was a drama for adults that made nearly a billion dollars globally, an achievement that’s worth celebrating in part because so few directors get the chance; its ambition is written across every frame. After a series of misses — “Inception” and “Dunkirk” nominated for Best Picture but settling for undercard wins, “The Dark Knight” not nominated at all — Nolan’s time has come.

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Indeed, the timing seems somewhat perfect, with Nolan at the height of his acclaim and powers. So golden is he that Warner Bros. has rereleased “Tenet,” the last film he made before “Oppenheimer” — and its presence in theaters for a week sticks out somewhat jaggedly from an otherwise perfectly framed moment. The rerelease allows more people to see a movie with a rollout that was vexed enough to break the Nolan-WB partnership; it also makes for an intriguing document of an artist working through issues and, for once, not quite getting there. In “Oppenheimer,” we see Nolan approach perfection, as regards his own goals and how he’s getting there; in “Tenet,” which is utterly worth seeing on as big a screen as one can get for an understanding of a key filmmaker of this era, we watch him sweat.

From its inception (as it were), “Tenet” seemed like the culmination of a vision: The movie takes among the key concerns of Nolan’s work across his career — time, and the desire to exert control out of it — makes it text, then bolds and underlines it. The characters played by John David Washington and Robert Pattinson, members of the Tenet agency trying to prevent a nefarious attack by traveling back in time from the future, flip back and forth; they’re able to reverse entropy. “Don’t try to understand it. Just feel it,” a scientist character played by Clémence Poésy says near the top of the film; depending on one’s perspective, this approach either lets the film off the hook as regards to the issue of making sense or places Nolan’s filmmaking to an admirable self-imposed test. If we are in a post-logic space, it’s his filmmaking that has to carry the day.

The filmmaking is characteristically strong — explosions in reverse look so cool! And yet, unlike “Oppenheimer,” which has the juice to thrive on a home viewing on the strength of its characters’ emotional journeys, “Tenet” really only makes sense as a blowout, big-screen blitz; its most potent conceits are about how to represent things in the flashiest, brightest, most exciting manner. By the end of the big-screen experience, one experiences a state less of exhilaration than submission.

And yet this is filmmaking that precious few, relative to Nolan’s past and future performance, would see. The film was slated for release in summer 2020; it eventually saw delayed release that year, but the entropy of the world was only moving one way, and moviegoers weren’t yet ready to travel back to before things shut down. (My colleague Kate Aurthur wrote, in that moment, a very funny piece about the experience of seeing “Tenet” in a near-empty theater; as for me, I didn’t have the time to spare.) Both “Tenet” and “Oppenheimer” exist against their moments to a special and extreme degree. The latter film is being celebrated for bringing audiences back to theaters post-COVID, especially through its much-vaunted box office battle with “Barbie.” The former, in the midst of high COVID, was competing with staying at home and streaming, and lost. Its rerelease serves as a reminder that it exists.

If it’s remembered by future generations of filmgoers, perhaps it should be as a sort of codex to what “Oppenheimer” became. Pattinson, notably, gave a book of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s speeches to his director during filming; Oppenheimer wends his way into the film first ephemerally, as characters fight to harness a technology with the potential to end life on earth, and then quite literally, as we’re told in expository dialogue that the power to send machines of war back from the future were invented by a generations-hence intellectual heir to Oppenheimer.

The concern about the potential end of life on earth is heavy stuff, even for a filmmaker who’s plunged Gotham City into darkness and shown the Dunkirk campaign as at times nearly hopeless. And in “Tenet,” the viewer can sense him working out how to make it fun, how to make it workable for a popcorn audience. It was a balance he’d later strike by following entirely different impulses from the ones that make “Oppenheimer.” In “Tenet,” for instance, the characters are movie-star archetypes whose lack of backstory is their point; in “Oppenheimer,” our fear for a post-nuclear world is practically as potent as our fear for Oppy’s soul. The detonating surprises over the course of “Tenet” relate to the (at times confusing) logistical questions of who was where at what time; “Oppenheimer” allows itself clearer, cleaner narrative lines, reserving its big reveals for the kind of character moments that might slow down an exposition machine like “Tenet.”

“Tenet” is no one’s idea of a fiasco. For one thing, released at basically any other moment in time, it would likely have made real money. And Nolan is strong as ever on the technical side of things. But one thing he’s, for once, not is assured. In “Tenet,” grand bits of philosophy are plainly and bluntly studded in, not blending into the slipstream of his work the way they’ve done in the past. Being directly told that a given moment is about free will or destiny — or, for that matter, the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer and its repercussions on world history — in the midst of a spectacle that’s already demanding great focus to know where everyone is on the gameboard… Well, it’s a lot!

And it’s suggestive of a director whose reach, for once, exceeded his grasp, who wanted to make a big entertainment with big ideas mixed in but overindexed on the first part of the equation. There’s so much going on in “Tenet” that what it’s trying to say gets a bit lost; it’s so determined to be a movie that it forgets to be a story. This would be merely unfortunate were it not leading into what came next, a timeline so tidy it feels like a Hollywood screenplay. Regrouping, Nolan next started with character and situation, and found the global implications stemming from their story. It’s a tidy reversal, and one that suggests the versatility of a director whose concerns haven’t changed, but whose way of expressing them has. And it’s proof that “Tenet,” instructive as it is about what came next, may have been destined to exist on a lower tier from the start — after all, it’s much more relatable to watch characters who are subject to the punishing force of time than characters who can harness it.

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