by Michael Young | November 5, 2021
8 min read

Editor’s Note: Looking for a break from reviewing last year’s crop of “movies with a conscience,” reviewer Michael Young calls our attention to the latest cinematic entry from the writer-director of the hugely successful “Dark Knight Trilogy”: “Batman Begins (2005), “The Dark Knight” (2008) and “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012). Although met with an underwhelming critical reception and honored only with a 2020 Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” may be just the mind-bending escapist spectacle you need this weekend. Available on DVD from Netflix, to stream on HBO Max and Hulu Premium and to buy for $14.99 on a variety of streaming platforms

I really wanted “Tenet” to be an outrageously good movie. I mean, it’s global ticket sales of upwards of $350 million in the middle of the pandemic almost singlehandedly saved the movie industry. And it was another blockbuster from British-American writer-director Christopher Nolan, who gave us the “Dark Knight” comic book movies, as well as mystifying and sensually rich films like “Inception,” “Memento” and “Interstellar.” It has a cliffhanger of a plot: Will a secret agent who learns of an attack that will take place in the future and destroy the world figure out how to avert it? And with Nolan’s having been provided a budget of $205 million, why wouldn’t you expect an over-the-top cinema experience.

Well, “Tenet” is indeed a sensual delight, even though it did not live up to expectations that it would, almost singlehandedly, save the movie industry in the middle of the pandemic. The score, from Ludwig Goransson (Oscar winner for “Black Panther”), is heavy, but also engages the same musical themes both backwards and forwards, reflecting the movie’s varying time dimensions—a staple Nolanesque plot twist. The cinematography (in IMAX and 70mm) was done by Hoyte van Hoytema (Oscar-nominated for “Dunkirk”) and is lushly colored and fully immersive. The main characters are almost always strikingly costumed in impeccably tailored suits, and every scene is staged with careful attention to details. (Production design was by Nathan Crowley, the past recipient of five Oscar nominations, and Kathy Lucas, one.) The movie is a masterwork of stunning visual and aural stimulation.

And that’s not even counting the visual effects. Yes, “Tenet” won the Oscar in this category and, although I’ve seen only “Mulan” among the other competitors for this award so far, I fully understand why Tenet won the award. What makes these special effects different from those featured in so many nominated movies is that there was absolutely no CGI (computer-generated imagery). All of the effects are what, in the industry, are called “practical effects.” Basically, that means that everything you see was staged using old-fashioned techniques and stuntmen (and -women). Usually when a movie like this has a huge budget, you expect that a massive computer bank has been churning out the visuals, leaving the actors to imagine their computer-generated foes while filming scenes in front of green screens. Not when the director is the purist Christopher Nolan, whose preference is for real action only.

car crash scene from "Tenet"
None of the special effects in “Tenet” were computer generated. Nolan’s preference for live action staging earned last year’s Oscar for Best Visual Effects.” Source: Warner Bros.

And there is plenty of that. The initial scene involves an attack on a symphony concert that amps up the adrenaline and sets the pace for the rest of the movie. In another important scene, an airplane crashes into a hangar and starts a fire. In this case, instead of using miniatures or CGI, the filmmakers bought a real 747 and crashed it into a real airplane hangar. Then there is one of the most intense heists (involving the capture of the goods while in transport) ever shot. It required the shutdown of a six-lane highway in Tallinn, Estonia, for several hours and the deployment of five very large vehicles, including a fire ladder truck. Finally, there is a car chase scene involving not two, but three automobiles, whose pyrotechnics would make James Bond order an extra martini. All of this was filmed with traditional “practical effects” technology, which makes the resulting spectacles even more impressive.

It is impossible not to compare this movie to a James Bond film, and I can imagine that the producers worked very hard to release “Tenet” in advance of “No Time to Die,” the newest Bond flick. The excitement and pace of “Tenet” are similar, and the locations are correspondingly scattered around the world and include Estonia, Denmark, Italy, London, Mumbai and Los Angeles. “Tenet” even has a Russian villain (Kenneth Branagh as Sator), who, plagued with a terminal illness, has conceived a plot to destroy the entire world when he commits suicide. These are all the elements of a Bond film, and whatever you feel about those movies will likely influence your opinion of this one.

But there are also some big differences. In Most of Christopher Nolan’s movies reveal his fascination with two important motifsthat you won’t find in a typical Bond film. One is in playing with time, and the other is in creating mental puzzles that, at their deepest levels, will only be solved by extreme devotees willing to watch the movie numerous times. “Memento,” for example, told the story backwards and from the point of view of someone who was totally unable to remember some key things. “Inception” dealt with dreams and the idea of planting thoughts by inserting experiences into the characters’ dreams. “Interstellar” involves traveling through wormholes in order to save humanity. Even “Dunkirk,” set in World War II, layered three different time perspectives around a single event. All of these films require an investment on the part the viewer if you have any chance of understanding the story.

With “Tenet,” Nolan may have gone too far. There is time travel involved here—in fact, there are, apparently, four different “portals” through which people can be transport between time periods. But the real problem is not time travel, per se. It’s Nolan’s embrace of the concept of “entropy reversal,” which is sort of like time travel, but not exactly. Humans (of the future) have developed a technology that allows them to somehow embed objects (including people) with the possibility of existing in a physics realm where energy does not seek its lowest state, but rather naturally winds back to a higher state. In such a world a gun doesn’t fire a bullet, but rather catches it as it comes back from wherever it resided (in a block of cement or a glass window). Yeah, “entropy reversal” is a really tough concept to wrap your head around, and, despite Nolan’s having had a physicist advise him on the script, I’m not sure everything in the movie is perfectly consistent with this premise. (Of course, I’m no physicist, either.)

But the point is that neither is 99.9 percent of the audience for this movie. And Trying to keep up with the “reverse physics” of this film is going to be more than a mind-full for the average viewer. As Barbara (Clemence Poesy), a scientist, tells the main character, called The Protagonist, early in the movie, “Don’t try to understand, feel it.” I’m guessing she is also talking to the audience. Movie critics have also felt compelled to forewarn their readers. Brian Tallerico ( wrote: “Nolan goes so far down his own rabbit hole of time travel that one almost needs to take notes to keep up. . . .” James Berardinelli ( noted: “. . .this may be the most challenging of Nolan’s films to date when it comes to wrapping one’s mind around the concepts forming the narrative’s foundation: Backwards-moving entropy, non-linear thinking, temporal paradoxes.” Jessica Kiang (New York Times) didn’t worry about including spoilers in her review because “. . . even attempting an explanation of a plot so contorted it’s best not to worry about it.”

So, unless you are one of those rare nerds who will view this movie six times and tease out all of its puzzles—there is one involving the words Tenet, Arepo, Sator; and three more that I don’t even pretend to understand, and I tend to like puzzles—then you may well ask what is there here for you? Will you enjoy the characters maybe? John David Washington plays The Protagonist. (That’s correct, he doesn’t have a name and isn’t called anything by anybody throughout the film, but is listed in the credits as the main character.) Washington does a terrific job here as the secret agent and would be a wonderful replacement for Daniel Craig in the James Bond franchise. His performance has the right mix of confusion and understanding called for to convincingly occupy in this role.

If The Protagonist is a James Bond stand-in, then there has to be a Bond Woman, right? And here that role is played by the statuesque Elizabeth Debicki. She is the highly estranged wife, Kat, of the main villain, Sator, whose only concern when she is offered the job of saving the world is whether that includes her son. The total lack of chemistry between The Protagonist and Kat is a thread that could have been developed and never was. Instead, she just sort of hangs out there, serving only as eye candy in a side story with no real purpose or impact.

Whatever chemistry exists in the movie is between The Protagonist and Neil (Robert Pattinson, best known for his portrayal of vampire Edward Cullen in “Twilight”). Neil is an intriguing person with a very uncertain history (or should I say future!). With a master’s in physics, he tells The Protagonist near the end of the movie: “I’ll see you at the beginning, my friend.” Another puzzle to figure out.

To get the most out of this film, I suggest you pay close attention to two scenes, in particular, where the Protagonist is doing battle with an opponent in a hallway. The story—and the accompanying visual effect—are all tightly wrapped up in these two mirror-image confrontations.

So, should you see this movie? Well, I think the answer is yes. But not because there is a cogent plot line, and not because there are sympathetic characters. No, see it because the visual and aural stimulation will transport you away from your all the daily stresses and concerns. “Tenet” is truly two and a half hours of wonderful escape! And, in the end, that’s enough.  3.5 stars

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Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.

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