On John David Washington and Christopher Nolan’s Tenet.
What isn’t derivative in director Nolan’s latest film? The list of allusions is considerable and includes Michael Mann’s Heat, The Wachowskis’ Matrix II, Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket/ Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow/ David O. Russell’s Three Kings, as well as his own Dark Knight Rises and countless other doppelgänger titles. Nolan builds this maze of references with some amount of fracas, distracting us from all the plot holes waiting around each corner. And while it has been the one blockbuster to see the inside of a movie theater this year, among the parade of pandemic post releases, the one that shines brightest by its absence is Bond, who now finds himself with more time left to die.
Enter John David Washington. As the Bond release date kept being set back, heated speculation as to whom would attempt to rise to the challenge of Daniel Craig’s legacy turned to Nolan friendly Tom Hardy, Witcher Henry Cavill, and the one most suited for the task, wayward vicar James Norton. Idris Alba, who’s had more good fortune with television than cinema, had also been mentioned and would contribute something that exudes yet again that ‘my way’ sensibility to this current incarnation of masculine torment and introspection. All the while simply being too heroic, in spite of his characters’ failings, to make us believe there could still be such a thing as a contemporary British hero.
Nolan appears keenly aware of this and his ‘protagonist’ character, played by Washington, is the incarnation of something that is not Post-Bond but rather Bond Zero for the 21st century. The ease and grace, the sophistication and the fighting skills, and the perfectly cut clothes are all there. But something more is taking place, new patterns, shifts in speed, a truly intelligent gaze and an ability to anticipate and deflect what his ‘identity’ is within a genre so predominantly white. Daniel Craig and Sam Mendes were there to get MI-6 get blown apart. Tenet does not suggest that Washington is there to take over; he is effortlessly (in his performance) so much more than that. Hollywood films that travel the world are few and far between, except perhaps for Tom Cruise’s M-I films that scout the planet for stunt and scenery opportunities. Otherwise, the American agent (from police to secret), at least on screen, would not know how to operate outside his/her perimeter: no sense of the customs, the culture, no knowledge of history or language. The ‘beat’ defines the limits of power. At best Hollywood sends super heroes who end up causing civil wars.
Bond could slip him in and out of borders, as does Washington who also finds the slide door for time. And gets it so quickly. John David Washington, who seems smaller in stature in this particular film, basks in the glow of a woman who towers over him, while shutting down the bloated artifice of ‘clubs’ in London in the impeccable lunch scene with Michael Caine, and in the perfectly edited scenes with Robert Pattinson, keeping him there just long enough. It’s not the new Batman our eyes are looking for and Pattinson is remarkably generous with this. Which is not to say that Nolan replaces this with something ‘American’; he knows better. He lets this groundbreaking performer invent something before our eyes, moving back and forth and in the process producing the illusion that it is happening in real time. As if we’re seeing this for the first time while he’d always been there.