Creative Sensemaker

A collage of various images from a film including a man holding a gun.

The latest instalment of Creative Sensemaker, a cultural series by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency

By Matt d’Ancona    Above image: Tenet    Friday 21 August, 2020    Long read

Welcome to the latest Creative Sensemaker from Tortoise Media. When Christopher Nolan began casting Tenet in March 2019 – developing a screenplay he’d been working on for ‘six or seven years’ – even the master of grand cinematic imagination cannot possibly have imagined the significance his latest project would acquire.

Scroll forward to August 2020 and this high-octane spy action movie – with Nolanesque cerebral twists, naturally – has become symbolic to an extent that far exceeds its entertainment value, its potential at the box office, and its likely critical reception. 

Released on 26 August in most markets around the world, followed by the US on 3 September and China the following day, Tenet is the tentpole movie that could symbolise the revival of mass entertainment as the world awakens from its coronavirus cultural hibernation.

Shrouded in mystery as most Nolan productions are, the film follows ‘the Protagonist’ (John David Washington) on a mission to ‘prevent World War III’. The dazzling cast includes Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki (recently cast as Diana in The Crown), Kenneth Branagh, Dimple Kapadia and Michael Caine. Tantalisingly, Washington has described Tenet as an ‘in-law to Inception [Nolan’s 2010 masterpiece about the infiltration of the subconscious]... They’re related by marriage’.

Well, I’ve booked my tickets (4DX, of course). It’s hard to overstate how much I’ve missed the movies – no, the cinema itself. And the prospect of going to see something magnificently over the top by Christopher Nolan, in a multiplex, albeit in a mask and observing social distancing, feels like a true milestone in a grim year.
A woman and a man in bed.
The Kremlin Letter get you in the mood:

The spy movie genre is deeper and richer than you might suppose. Here are some forgotten, underrated or neglected espionage classics to enjoy during the countdown to Tenet:

Our Kind Of Traitor (2016, VOD)
Based on the John Le Carré novel of the same name, Susanna White’s movie is a dusty gem that explores the unlikely friendship formed in Morocco between a Russian criminal, Dima (Stellan Skarsgård) and a British civilian, Perry MacKendrick (Ewan McGregor) – and the tensions to which it is subjected when MI6 becomes involved. 

Spy Game (2001, VOD)
Apparently no more than a formulaic vehicle for Brad Pitt and Robert Redford, Tony Scott’s thriller is, in fact, a smart, absorbing race against time to get Pitt’s character, Bishop, out of a Chinese prison before his execution. Redford is outstanding as his CIA mentor, a character of many psychological layers who only reveals what he has really been up to in the film’s closing moments.

The Kremlin Letter (1970, VOD)
Starring Richard Boone, Orson Welles, and Max Von Sydow, John Huston’s Cold War thriller ought to have been a surefire box-office hit, but it turned out to be quite the opposite. Still, it has aged well in the past half-century, full of twists, psychological complexity and betrayal. 

No Way Out (1987, VOD)
Who is Yuri? Kevin Costner’s mission in this classic spy movie is to hunt down the Soviet mole embedded in the Pentagon and save the skin of compromised Defense Secretary Gene Hackman (with whom he shares a lover, Sean Young). The drama of the manhunt – room by room, corridor by corridor – is nail-biting. And the movie’s jaw-dropping twist ending should have earned it a place alongside The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects.
A book cover on a grey background.
Two book covers on a grey background.


How To Stay Sane In An Age Of Division by Elif Shafak 
Turkey’s most widely read female author, Shafak is also a deeply committed activist for human rights, as well as a Booker-shortlisted novelist. Her latest book is a plea for ‘humanism over tribalism’ and ‘empathy over hatred’ in times of ‘contagious anxiety’.

Girl Decoded by Rana el Kaliouby
Born and raised in Cairo, el Kaliouby is one of the most important and innovative thinkers on the future of tech and AI. This is a must-read if you want to understand how a world run by algorithms can co-exist with human compassion and empathy.

Making Sense: Conversations On Consciousness, Morality And The Future Of Humanity by Sam Harris
Harris – a cognitive neuroscientist who rose to public prominence as an outspoken atheist and opponent of fundamentalism – has become a hugely popular (and controversial) podcaster and speaker. This collection of discussions with Timothy Snyder, Anil Seth, Daniel Kahneman, and many others, is as thought-provoking as you could hope.