The Sound Barrier (1952) and Tenet (2020)

Dir. David Lean. Starring Ann Todd, Ralph Richardson, Nigel Patrick

Dir. Christopher Nolan. Starring John David Washington, Elizabeth Debicki, Robert Pattinson

In two bloated ages of blockbuster filmmaking, David Lean and Christopher Nolan are curious rejoinders to their times. Lean, while not immune to the bloat of the 1950s and 1960s, made films which more often than not cut through that fattiness with spectacular acting performances and equally spectacular craft. Nolan, who is not remotely close to Lean as a technician or a visual artist, nonetheless has the virtues of being a trendsetter with a visual style in an age when blockbuster filmmaking has neither. I’m not all that hopped up on Nolan’s aesthetic, but at least it’s an aesthetic, which “we’re slaves to effects shots done for cheap by our non-union employees” has so far failed to be. All these gritty Batman movies are trying to chase Nolan’s ghost, just as every twisty thriller is trying to get reveal more along the lines of Inception or The Prestige than they are Fight Club or The Game. If the purpose of blockbuster filmmaking from the commercial perspective is to be like the ocean at high tide, grabbing everything in reach and engulfing it, then both Lean and Nolan have managed to outrun that tide, getting their ankles or knees wet without ever going under.

We’re taking The Sound Barrier and Tenet together, even though Tenet made more than ten times The Sound Barrier when you adjust for inflation, because both films use absolute nonsense science in service of stories which have some gloss of realism. The Sound Barrier makes a point of depicting the exercise of a jet engine early on, but more than that situates jet aircraft as part of the history of aviation which has roots in the desire for air superiority in World War II. Tenet, which is about as real as a Bond movie, uses that relative likeliness to its advantage. The unsavory nuke-wielding Soviets of the Connery Bond movies—a group which would well have inspired fear around Dr. No or Thunderball—have been replaced here by Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a Russian oligarch with his hands in a temporally strange cookie jar. It’s well nigh impossible to explain how the time reverser thingamajig works, but then again it’s basically impossible to explain how Moonraker works. Both The Sound Barrier and Tenet are meant to exist in spaces recognizable to viewers even if the details that drive the plots are basically incomprehensible. Nolan has always been good at shading huge wealth by suggesting it’s also incomprehensible; aside from like, Bruce Wayne, think about Saito puncturing a conversation in Inception by saying, “I bought the airline.” Tenet protests that the Protagonist (Washington) is entering the world of the uberwealthy a little too strongly, maybe, as when Michael Caine tells Washington that Brooks Brothers isn’t going to cut it. But the idea of access to world-shattering technology as well as the slightly more mundane ability to schlep to Vietnam for a private romantic getaway gives Andrei that sheen of billionaire menace. Lean, for his part, is primarily using editing to make that sense of verisimilitude at 40,000 feet. We’ll see a plane soaring or leveling out from ground level and then we’ll get a glimpse of the pilot inside the cockpit, or a mixture of shots inside the cockpit and those immediately outside of it with the clouds rushing past. Given Nolan’s propensity to write his own films—Insomnia is the only feature where he doesn’t have a screenplay credit—and Lean’s work as an editor in his early years, it’s not surprising to see them returning to their roots.

Both films include plane crashes in their first halves, and how they handle those plane crashes says everything about how the rest of the film will play out. In The Sound Barrier, no plane crash actually gives us the satisfaction of watching a plane collide with the ground in blazing vainglory, as we get to see in an earlier flick like Only Angels Have Wings. When Christopher (Denholm Elliott), the son of aircraft engineer and tycoon John Ridgefield (Richardson) goes up for his flight, we know that he’ll die. (When Tony, played by Nigel Patrick, goes up later in the film, we know he’s going to buy the farm as well; the screenplay is not all that subtle about preparing us for those moments, because in both cases it’s not really about the man who is killed. More on that later.) He’s only taking a Tiger Moth up, a very standard trainer, and his dread on the day before is palpable. He is not a pilot, he knows he’s not a pilot, his family knows he is not a pilot, and yet he is willing to risk this flight, and presumably more to come, because his father expects him to be able to fly. He can’t. The scene where Christopher goes up, watched by his father, sister Susan (Todd) and his new brother-in-law Tony is awfully sad. Elliott plays Christopher as someone who fears every moment of the flight in the same way that some children start bawling on the pony ride at a birthday party. His face is gruesome. He is shot from underneath in a way that reveals the tightness of the cockpit, the sky bright behind his dark helmet, emphasized like the subject of a particular Expressionistic Munch. Meanwhile, the commentary goes on from terra firma; the turns are bad, which all three of them must know, but only John seems perturbed by it. The crash itself is inevitable—Christopher flubs the first attempt at a landing and bounces off the ground like a pogo stick—but we don’t see it. It’s a wide shot of the plane, downed and crumpled, and then another when the plane goes up in flames, sealing Christopher’s fate. The plane crash is not the spectacle. If anything, it’s Christopher’s face as he tries to turn a light, capable aircraft around and simply cannot, or perhaps it’s the way that Tony has to grapple with Susan in the left foreground to keep her from running towards the inferno that is attracting grounds crews as belated as Christopher’s turns. Feeling is what draws us in for this first crash in The Sound Barrier, not the fact of the burning plane itself. Kept at a football field’s length from the actual disaster but put in close range of the fear of it, we think far more about the tragedy of a pressured son dying to please a father who cannot be finally mollified than we do about the broken wings and smell of burning petrol.

The plane crash in Tenet made the trailer, which in my crueler moments I think are all Christopher Nolan movies come down to anyway. The reason for the crash is actually kind of fun on its merits, and there’s a genuinely exciting brevity to how quickly the film goes from “let’s do this” to “we’re doing this!” The Protagonist and Ned (Pattinson) are trying to break into a freeport, where the wealthy keep their arts and valuables and so on in tax havens which they can access at their leisure. With a security design based on the Pentagon, the freeport where Andrei is keeping his time jawn (fine, the “turnstile”) is not quite impregnable but pretty darn close, and the emergency that the Protagonist and Ned come up with is a 747 barreling into the building. They enlist some help to crash the plane from a resourceful fellow, Mahir (Himesh Patel), and then they do just that. The plane never leaves the ground, though it does get up to a rollicking good speed on the tarmac, and then it makes contact with the hangar. Borrowing from the Police Story ethos that says that if you have a good stunt, show it from all the angles, Nolan does just that. He’s got cameras on the tail of the aircraft, in the (empty) cockpit, running behind the plane, and inside the hangar. By my count, there are three shots which show the moment of impact: cockpit (the building breaks), dolly (the left wing goes up in flames in two places), tail (same, but with tremors that connect the next shot to the shaking interior of the freeport). And then there are two more to show the aftermath: one inside the hangar as the fuselage comes barreling in, and then finally a drone shot to show the smoking half-concealed wreckage of the craft. Patel is carrying the weight of the audience in this sequence, which is an interesting choice given how small a part he has in the film. He’s the one we see raise some eyebrows when the plane hits and drags some cars; he and another man climb through the emergency exit to get off the plane and then watch the show. And as strange as it is to say this about running a Boeing into a building, it’s all pretty anticlimactic. It’s not a model, it’s not CGI, and yet it still feels a little hollow. The initial rush of “we’re doing this!” is more exciting than the payoff, which feels like a totally ludicrous thing to say and yet it’s true. The intention is to impress, not to move. The wreckage of a Tiger Moth (twenty-nine foot wingspan) hundreds of feet away from the camera is more powerful than the wreckage of a 747 (two hundred and twenty-four foot wingspan) from five different angles because there are higher stakes attached to that Tiger Cub. There’s no real danger in the 747, no person we care for, and we know that if the crash is successful, then there will just be more heisting and gunplay and secret missions to come. But there’s no tomorrow, no second flight for Christopher when he can’t finish the first, and even that leaves out the widening rift between Susan and John.

The Sound Barrier, which postdates Chuck Yeager’s first supersonic flight by five years, solves the problems of the sound barrier by having pilot Philip Peel (John Justin) have a brainwave. Philip wonders if the rules are backwards beyond Mach I; maybe if he pushes the stick the opposite way, he’ll be able to get past the speed of sound. Ridgefield’s reluctant engineer, Sparks (Joseph Tomelty), shrugs at the suggestion and says anything’s possible up there. This is pure silliness even without knowing about Chuck Yeager. (Yeager saw the film, as has been recorded in many places including Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, and of course thought this decision was zany to the point of being risible; doing what Philip does to break the sound barrier is a guaranteed way to kill the pilot.) Yet the actual breaking of the sound barrier by a character of third-level importance in the film is kind of anticlimactic in its own way. He breaks the sound barrier—which the film treats as an accomplishment, albeit not one celebrated with a giant room going nuts like we see in Apollo 13—and reports that the controls are different at that point. The actual accomplishment is that John and Susan can be reunited. The crashes which kill Christopher and Tony are sad, obviously, but their sadness is most reflected on Susan. The older she gets and the more loved ones she loses, the more she resents her father for his distance, his recalcitrance. There’s no evidence that he cares about anything more than he cares about being able to have manufactured a plane that broke the sound barrier; by this arithmetic, the loss of a disappointing son and the loss of a great test pilot who happened to be the father of his grandchild are incidental to the final goal. It is the arithmetic that Susan has been using to assess him for many months at this point, and the fact that the two of them are able to reconcile when he casts off his disguise as a marble model is what matters most in this film. The Sound Barrier is not a great movie, certainly not a great Lean, but it’s a film which understands what is most important. It knows that a pregnant Susan must be able to wend her way to the crater that was made when her husband was disintegrated, and that her insistence on being there as she could not be in the presence of her brother’s fresh corpse is the film’s most powerful moment. The junk science is a way to roil up its characters and then bring them back together. For as much as pushing the stick a counterintuitive direction really matters in this film, they could have been putting together an expedition to Neptune or the Netherlands. As long as we believe in Susan’s history of misery at her father’s hands, and as long as we believe that the reunion between Susan and John is merited, then whether Christopher burned up past Jupiter or Tony drowned swimming to Amsterdam is whatever.

Nolan’s junk science has given him a much harder job, and it’s his own fault. Tenet struggles mightily to create an honest emotional reaction because the film’s resources and interest are not centered there. There is some quiet attraction between the Protagonist and Kat (Debicki), which goes down easy and doesn’t exactly rumble in one’s tummy. On some level I suppose Andrei’s personal torment has some panache, even though that has much more to do with a character type than it does with Kenneth Branagh. Pattinson and Washington have some chemistry working in tandem with each other. But the film’s primary interest is in appealing to whatever inside us makes us go “Whoooa.” The time switcheroos, the unusual, almost uncanny movements on screen of people going in the reverse time direction, the keen special effects. It’s all meant to get the whoooa. But it’s a difficult act to pull off, and the mystery of who’s kicking who and who is the real arbiter of these plots feels as ephemeral and intangible as the process that allows objects to travel backwards in time. Nolan, for all of his years getting out ahead of the curve, finds himself doing something very MCU: if they can’t stop the big bad from doing something, then everyone on Earth will die. It’s a gray motivation to stop him at best, unless the point is to watch soldiers attack in a “temporal pincer” or to watch a car chase unfold in both directions. It’s all well short of whoooa.

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