Few modern auteurs are as distinct as Christopher Nolan. His style and preoccupations are clearly defined. Visually his films are sheer, urban and cold. They feature men in well-tailored suits, motivated by dead wives and absent children, caught in plots overflowing with heady sci-fi concepts and twists. Spectacle is a constant, as is handwringing over how technology dehumanises us.
Despite the specificity of Nolan’s filmmaking tells, he has proven himself a chameleon of genre. Superhero, heist, mystery, war, noir, sci-fi adventure, and – with this latest film, Tenet – spy. Largely disparate in tone and conventions, these forays share one unifying quality: a tendency to centre on wealth.
Whether it is the self-funded super-heroics of Batman, the corporate espionage of Inception or the lingering notion of the sheer cost of war, wealth is ever-present, suffused throughout Nolan’s filmography. This is perhaps unsurprising; Nolan’s own persona is marked by signifiers of class. He carries a flask of Earl Grey tea (no milk) on set and has an assistant whose job it is to procure more at all times. And his films, by nature of his favouring practical effects and on-location shooting, are themselves testaments to wealth, coming in with budgets in the hundreds of millions.
Tenet is no exception. A spy thriller in the vein of James Bond, it inherits the franchise’s use of casual opulence as a shorthand for exoticism. Like Skyfall, the film darts from one picturesque location to another at a breakneck speak – Mumbai, Oslo and the Amalfi Coast, among others. Like Thunderball, a sizable portion of the plot takes place on a private yacht, the quintessential symbol of affluence. And like every post-Cold War Bond film, the villain –Russian oligarch and arms dealer Andrei Sator – is a billionaire who became rich by exploiting the international military-industrial complex. (The World is Not Enough’s Elektra King was an oil magnate. Die Another Day’s Gustav Graves was a tech entrepreneur. Casino Royale’s Le Chiffre financed international terrorism.)
Billionaires – like tailored suits and dead wives – recur throughout Nolan’s filmography. What makes Sator noteworthy is he is the first billionaire Nolan has depicted as an out-and-out villain.
The Prestige, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight were largely ambivalent on the topic of massive wealth. Lord Caldlow’s wealth is little more than a plot device, and Bruce Wayne is positioned as something of a ‘good billionaire’, using his wealth to bring criminals to justice.
Inception saw Nolan’s politics begin their shift into a quasi-class-critical mode. Saito’s desire to monopolise the energy market is directly equated with corporations using technology to control human autonomy. However, Saito ultimately becomes a victim of the dream-technology, spending hundreds of years trapped in limbo. The implication being that technology is the true evil, not the wealth that allows one to deregulate its use – a backwards outlook that blames the effect for its cause.
With The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan pushed into more topical territory, attempting to ground his politics with real-world parallels, although this only confused them further. The Wall Street heist sequence reads like a direct response to the Global Financial Crisis, with Bane serving as avatar for anger at the big banks. This reading, however, is undercut by Bane’s ideological hollowness, ultimately a tool used to reveal the citizens of Gotham from the unruly mob they are. The real enemy, then, is not the wealthy elite, but the working poor who would use anti-capitalism as a mask for their greed and desire for revenge.
It’s in Interstellar and Dunkirk that Nolan’s class ideology comes into focus. Both films see working-class characters forced to pay for the decisions of short-sighted but powerful men, a conceit expressed by Mark Rylance’s Mr Dawson: ‘Men my age dictate this war. Why should we be allowed to send our children to fight it?’ It’s in these films that Nolan’s viewpoint becomes defined, but its expression is still muted. Billionaires – or indeed, any kind of wealthy elite – are absent entirely. The antagonists of these films are elemental forces: time, space, and the tides.
Where Inception depicted effect before cause, Interstellar and Dunkirk removed cause entirely, perhaps because Nolan recognised he – with his $20 million per film salary – veers closer to the class he is critiquing than the classes he is sympathising with.
The spy genre, however, demands moral clarity. While ambiguous protagonists are a key convention of the genre (one need look no further than James Bond), the villains are, as a rule, absolute in their values. Auric Goldfinger was dictated by greed, Alec Trevelyan and Raoul Silva by revenge, and Sator – with his megalomanic streak and volatile edge – is a combination of the two. He even comes complete with a shadowy Spectre-esque organisation for whom he is little more than a glorified-goon, although the twist is that it’s situated in the future, sending commands to Sator backward through time.
The goal of the organisation is to destroy the past, in an attempt to cheat their way out of the impending apocalypse. Their thinking runs thus: if we (the past) weren’t around to waste resources and drive climate change, then the condition of their present (our future) would improve, grandfather paradox be damned. Considering the temporal flexibility with which Nolan approaches storytelling, the relationship between past, present, and future is irrelevant. It does not matter when capitalist-driven industrialism destroyed the world, or who is killing who to avert it. The essential element of Nolan’s class commentary lies in his nominating Sator as the agent for said destruction.
Key to Sator’s plan is a system of Freeports – customs-free warehouses, used as tax-havens for the uber-rich, a place to store art and other valuable, comparable to Swiss Banks in their function – which he uses to smuggle munitions integral to his doomsday plan. The Freeports embody the extra-legal power neoliberalism asks us to grant private bodies. Sator’s entire enterprise is consciously, almost performatively illegal, yet no government has made any move to shut it down. Indeed, one of his chief buyers is the CIA.
Sator is perhaps closest to Nolan’s depiction of Bruce Wayne in this regard, both existing outside of the law, but remain supported by it. But where Nolan saw Bruce as a representation that billionaires can be good, now his position is reversed. Sator is corrupt, wholly, and if granted absolute power he will abuse it absolutely. His role in the supposed salvation of the future also invokes direct comparison to futurists like Elon Musk, heralded as the scions of mankind in narratives that have come to equate capitalism with species survival.
Throughout Tenet a verbal code, ‘we live in a twilight world’, is refrained. Narratively it propels the plot forward. Thematically it operates as Nolan’s driving idea: that the late-stage capitalism displayed throughout the film leads directly to extinction. Sator’s plan is Christopher Nolan’s portrayal of where an unregulated billionaire-class leads.
If the verbal code spells out the problem, its counterpoint presents something akin to a solution: ‘And there are no friends at dusk’. This is the weaponisation of the ideology that drives capitalism, turning the ‘greed is good’ mantra back upon those that benefit most from it and allowing us to look beyond the altruistic shell-game to locate the malicious intent within. In an apparent moment of growth, Nolan declares that there are no ‘good billionaires’ – especially not those who ask for your trust.
Yet Nolan’s film are also asking to be trusted. Made on a blockbuster budget by a highly paid director who enjoys complete creative control, Tenet is a product of the very system it is critiquing. Its $200-plus million budget is largely provided by Warner Bros, a capillary of the conglomerate. All of these facts create an inescapable dissonance between the message and its context, reducing the critique to a James Bond level-cliché. Nolan would approach us as a friend, pointing the way toward human survival, but perhaps it’s true that there are no friends at dusk.