Michael Leiter, director of the U.S. National Counter Terrorism Centre until 2011, suggested the Paris attacks were ‘a game changer for how the West looks at this threat’. One of the most disturbing aspects of the attack, according to Security Analyst Ed Davis, was how the attacks mirrored those in Mumbai in 2008, with ‘multiple teams simultaneously hitting different places.’
The nature of terrorism has undoubtedly changed since 9/11, and it’s as if, however consciously, Christopher Nolan is able to tap into our present fears. An attack could happen at any moment — and Tenet’s systematic scrambling of time captures this anxiety.
Particularly, however, Ed Davis’ description of recent terrorist attacks involving multiple teams that hit different places simultaneously is echoed in what Tenet describes as a ‘temporal pincer’ movement: much later in the film, two teams enter the same fight, with one team travelling forwards in time, while the other travels through it in reverse.
Strangely — or perhaps unsurprisingly — enough, Barack Obama once used The Dark Knight to describe ISIS: ‘ISIL is the Joker,’ he said. ‘It has the capacity to set the whole region on fire.’ However, Obama continued by saying that ‘ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States. Climate change is a potential existential threat to the entire world if we don’t do something about it.’
In many ways, Tenet plays much like an homage to James Bond with added physics
Despite the set-piece in Kiev that I’ve just described, in Tenet, it’s not terrorism that The Protagonist must defeat; the script is at (somewhat shonky) pains to make the stakes higher than high, making various references to a fate worse than ‘World War III’, ‘Nuclear Holocaust’, and an escalating situation colder than the Cold War (‘ice cold’, in fact.)
It’s here that Tenet updates the espionage genre for a contemporary audience. In many ways, Tenet plays much like an homage to James Bond with added physics: location-hopping from Denmark to Estonia, India to Italy, etc., our stony-faced Protagonist seeks to uncover and halt the Big Bad’s plan to end the world; the villain in this case, played by Kenneth Branagh, even has a broad Russian accent, recalling Cold War-era Bond.
However, Andrei Sator (Branagh), an oligarch who communes with the future, acts alone, explicitly not for a nation state; the predominant fears that Tenet mirrors back at us are the extremes of unmonitored individual power, left unchecked. In the past ten years, neoliberal globalisation has doubled-down in transferring a lot of power to multinational corporations (Walmart, for instance, has deeper pockets than Spain and Australia). What’s terrifying about Sator is that so much power rests in one man’s hands; get past the kitschy accent, and you’ll see he’s drawn like a more cavalier Jeff Bezos.
In Tenet, posterity has destroyed the planet to such an extent that they have nowhere left to go. Whereas in Interstellar, which saw dust storms and crop blights threaten humanity’s survival and Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper recruited to explore the outer reaches of space for a habitable space to continue our existence, the solution for humanity’s survival decided upon by Tenet’s future inhabitants is to turn back the hands of time, in order to live in the past. All of which is to say that as much as Nolan’s work captures something of our fear of being attacked, he at the same time draws upon the existential threat humanity poses to itself.
ART AND TERROR
Bill Gray, the protagonist of Don DeLillo’s Mao II (1991) muses, ‘Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness.’