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  • Andres Benatar

Tenet Explained

Updated: Oct 14, 2021

Who Is The Protagonist?

That’s a good question, and one a traditional mind would most likely scoff at given the ease often associated with it. Most of this certainty ascertains to the morality often associated with the word “protagonist.” A very biased definition of the protagonist would have it interpreted as “The main hero of a story.”

Now, there is certainly something centrally oriented regarding the placing of a protagonist in a narrative. But their morality is not the key factor in determining how important they are to the story so much as the actions they take. Both literature and cinema have presented an array of multi-dimensional protagonists that embody a dualistic framework that would be far too complex to identify as simply good or evil.

In the case of Tenet’s “The protagonist,” his introductory line of “We live in a twilight world” speaks depths into the morally ambiguous world Christopher Nolan sees surrounding both his cinematic reality and the chaotically unsound one we currently live in.

There is no doubt that as the world keeps turning, things appear dizzier in retrospect. Determining what is right or wrong, or who is right or wrong only grows more complicated in nature. In addition to such inherent complexity, the idea of identity only becomes more and more skewed as the concept of the association itself reduces the very concept of individuality.

In his work as a filmmaker, Christopher Nolan has never been restrained in his own ability to integrate cinematically oriented concepts/archetypes into the very narrative of his films. This can range from his debut directorial Following, and how the loner character, Bill (Jeremy Theobold), in his desire to be a writer follows people, only to uncover dark truths most storytellers wrestle with to put to the page.

The Prestige introduced the three magic trick acts as a basis for the standard three-act structure all film narratives embody. Inception dealt with the heist team making up the filmmakers themselves. Now, comes Tenet, a James Bond-like spy thriller with a nameless protagonist who is literally identified as “A protagonist,” which isn’t really all that different from how every individual views themselves in the bigger scope of their own lives, which in a way function as their own narrative.

One definition of a “protagonist” labels them as someone from whose point of view the story is seen. Every human being has their own perception of what reality is. Nolan’s protagonist is very much like that. The YouTube channel Cortex Videos released a video titled, The Protagonist Is The Audience. This video essay introduced the concept of the protagonist being a surrogate for the audience. But that only presents a sense of ambiguity regarding the audience itself.

What kind of people make up the modern cinematic audience? It may seem like a strange question to ponder. But when looking at how the culture of cinema has changed over time as well as the gradual perception of it, that question only becomes more relevant to contemplate.

By now it’s no mystery that an average movie audience will most likely go see a superhero film, Marvel or not, rather than engage in the intellectual stimulation of an auteur-themed project that would rarely get made, let alone garner any competitive traction. It’s only because of the commercial and critical success of mainstream filmmakers like Christopher Nolan or Denis Villanueva that average filmgoers in addition to fans will even bother to see their films when their names appear in the latest trailer promoting their work. But, looking at the audience on a wide scale, as well as focusing on the more individualistic aspects of a film, audiences can still clarify many things about the “twilight world” Nolan clearly views as the current state we live in.

When we first meet Tenet’s nameless protagonist, it’s made clear he is a CIA agent. His mission involves a simple extraction, which involves the expense of sacrificing the lives of innocent people in order for it to commence. But instead of following orders to the absolute, the nameless protagonist, who was willing to kill the extraction target if they failed to clarify their identity, decides to remove the very triggers that would’ve killed an audience of innocent people. This act alone serves as proof of both his defiance and his own individuality in the framework of the meta-narrative this film operates under.

For the majority of his career, Christopher Nolan’s framework has tried to steer away from politics as much as possible. Despite this attempt at neutrality, several narrative elements of some of his filmography have clearly shown where his views stand, especially when it comes to the crooked or at best morally questionable aspects of established hierarchies.

In the case of the CIA, Nolan had no problem having the intro of The Dark Knight Rises feature a sadistic CIA agent (Aidan Gillian) who actually identified himself as “I’m CIA” rather than giving an actual name. A similar comparison can be made to Tenet’s protagonist (John David Washington), who on a more positive note identifies himself as “The Protagonist of this operation,” rather than simply sticking to the hierarchal classification the CIA assigned him in not having a name.

The protagonist also demonstrates a sense of loyalty to both his comrades as well as being willing to rescue people he doesn’t know, which only illustrates more as to who the character really is, and what his own character journey throughout Tenet is meant to convey to the very audience that probably and understandably struggled to identify with.

One of the most notable criticisms of Tenet, aside from the difficulty of following the coherency of its moments of multiple time inversion sequences, is the lack of back story for its lead protagonist. The only indication of a prior life is shown in the abandonment of his former life as a CIA agent into that of a member of Tenet. Other than that, the character played by John David Washington lacks a back story or even the naturalistically subtle flashbacks Nolan’s work pulls off without going into a massive exposition dump unless of course, we take a trip back to Interstellar (LOL).

Naturally, this lack of detail would work against a character like The Protagonist. However, because Tenet plays with this cinematic convention in addition to the morally ambiguous world Nolan calls out in both this film, as well as the rest of his filmography, it only makes lines like “You either die a hero, or you lie long enough to see yourself become the villain or “We live in a twilight world” much more integral.

When these lines are taken on figurative levels, there can be no doubt how much they reflect Nolan’s views in the morally ambiguous world we all inhabit and how that in itself can cause a strain on our sense of identity. This counts especially for the protagonist who doesn’t really have much of an identity as a member of a hierarchical organization like the CIA.

This only makes his journey in joining Tenet, or more metaphorically, starting a new life a journey of self-identification, and even though his name remains a mystery by the end of the film, he still remains the protagonist of the operation, hence his story. The same can be said for how each of us is the protagonist of our own story/operation, regardless of our own names and whatever has happened to us.

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Andres Benatar is resident film expert. You can hear him on the 'Cinema 237' podcast - A podcast for cinephiles.

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