I am a huge Christopher Nolan fan.
I love his puzzle box approach to movies and that he trusts audiences to keep up with his crazy plotlines without spoon-feeding us everything.
Tenet (Nolan's most Christopher Nolan-y film yet) challenges not only our intelligence but also our morals.
Note: This will be a spoiler-filled article.
Bending your mind and time
Our story's hero — aptly named the Protagonist (John David Washington) — makes the ultimate sacrifice in the first eight minutes of the movie. He takes a suicide pill only to wake up after the title screen with a resurrection of sorts.
A mysterious agent tells the Protagonist, "We all believe we'd run into the burning building. But until we feel that heat, we can never know."
The Protagonist's willingness to lay down his life to protect his fellow CIA agents drops him into an unfolding story around a mysterious word — Tenet. Imbued with new life, he sets off to make a difference in the world.
After many strange experiences and convoluted conversations, the Protagonist (and the audience) finally learn what's happening.
While the rest of the world moves forward into the future, a new technology called an Inverter allows people to move backward through time.
What's your Perspective?
The key to understanding Tenet is to adopt the point of view of the person you're following.
If the Protagonist is moving forward into the future, every other inverted-person appears to be moving backward.
However, if the Protagonist goes through the Inverter, he moves forward into the past. And from his point of view, everyone and everything else is moving backward.
Nolan visualizes an experience we all know. If our ideology is rooted in historical tradition (the past) or a progressive ideal (the future), we feel the difference in others.
From our perspective, we're moving forward into the right way of living while others are moving backward.
The recent events at our nation's Capitol have multiplied these moments. Some call the blood-thirsty attack on our Capitol a demonstration of fighting for our Democracy. In contrast, others can only view it as an insurrection — while both claim American history to support their point.
Experiencing a different perspective can be as convoluted and confusing in life as in a Christopher Nolan film. Nolan seems to acknowledge this as he prescribes how he wants us to watch Tenet:
“Don't try to understand it. Feel it.”
Endure in doing good
In a world where people can't pull in the same direction for the common good (as seen by Nolan’s reference to climate issues destroying the lives of those in the future), we could trend toward cynicism and despair.
Yet the Protagonist keeps striving for the greater good — no matter what.
After saving the world, Neil (Robert Pattinson), the Protagonist's friend, decides to go back in time again, and we get an interaction that explains Tenet's message.
Neil: "We just saved the world. Can't leave anything to chance."
The Protagonist: "But can we change things if we do it differently?"
Neil: "What's happened, happened. Which is an expression of fate in the mechanics of the world. It's not an excuse to do nothing."
Despite how fixed the past may seem, our heroes keep going back because they have the faith to endure in doing.
And that's the point of Tenet — anyone can be the Protagonist. All you have to do is keep doing good even when it seems like it won't make a difference.
However, Nolan's faith is a fatalistic optimism — where we do the right thing because it's right. As noble as that is, the sad reality is few of us pass the self-sacrifice test when it counts because our immediate selfish desires undermine us.
Thankfully Jesus provides something more motivating than goodness for goodness sake.
Whoever sows to please their sinful nature, from the sinful nature will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. - Galatians 6:8-9
As inspiring as the Protagonist's self-sacrifice may be, let's fix our eyes on the most extraordinary Protagonist of all time. Jesus actually rose from the dead, and by His power, He raises us to a new way of living (2 Corinthians 5:14-17).
Our faith in Jesus strengthens us to keep doing good in a world where cynicism and quitting seem like the best option.
Jesus gives us more than an ideal picture of the world. Jesus gives us promises that He will make all things new (Revelation 21:4-5) and that our labor will not be in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). Jesus gives us His Spirit who imbues us with the ability to love our neighbor as ourselves (Galatians 5:22-24).
This year, let's not grow weary in doing good. Let's depend on Jesus and trust that our actions matter — it all matters.
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