The system was as predictable as it was brutal. It was at Haileybury, caught between the indignities of space and the pressures of time, that Christopher Nolan realised he was going to die.
Everyone knew the pecking order at Haileybury and Imperial Service College. The hierarchy was built into the boarding school’s dormitories. Long wooden-floored barracks, under low ceilings, without any decoration. Two parallel rows of identical iron-framed institutional beds faced each other, stretching along the walls. The youngest boys at one end, the eldest boys at the other end. With each year that passed, a boy would steadily advance up this chain, gaining in status and strength, and with it, the ability to police the younger boys.
Haileybury was founded in 1862 as a hothouse for the sons of the Empire to grow into Indian Civil Service officials. It’s the sort of school that Rudyard Kipling writes about in Stalky & Co. (1899): a rigid training ground where the latent savagery of young men is repurposed – not reformed out of them – for the service of muscular and supposedly noble moral codes. A prison, in other words, though with better hymns, and one where the prisoners eventually graduate as prison guards. “Survive your first two years at Haileybury,” claimed RAF group captain Peter Townsend, “and you could survive anything.”
When Nolan arrived there in the autumn of 1984 Haileybury had diminished. Every morning the entire school squeezed into the chapel and mouthed the words to prayers; every lunch time they queued to enter the refectory and ate in a room that smelled like boiled cabbage beneath oil paintings of men who once dictated the fate of the Punjab. They played rugby; they said Latin grace; they took cold showers; they wore the scratchy uniforms of the Combined Cadet Force. But these were rituals designed for an objective reality that was long gone. Haileybury was a finishing school for a dead Empire.
Nolan never slept well there. This was the early Eighties; he believed the world would soon end in a nuclear holocaust. In the dormitory each evening he would lie in his bed after lights out listening to the scores for Star Wars, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, or Vangelis’s score for Chariots of Fire on his walkman. If the environment at Haileybury during the day was, in Nolan’s recollection, “Darwinian”, at night he could escape. “I certainly prized the imaginative space of listening to music in the dark,” he told Tom Shone, the film critic who is the closest thing Nolan has to a Boswell, decades later.
So Nolan buried himself in Vangelis’s synthesisers. Unable to decide whether to conform to Haileybury’s grim systems, or to rebel against them, instead he disappeared into the world in his head. Was he imprisoned by the school, or liberated by it? Either way, the story of Nolan’s career is how he took the rest of us into his mind, and into the dormitory with him, without ever giving away just how troubled that interior really was.
It’s impossible to imagine Christopher Nolan wearing a T-shirt, binge drinking or being late. A 13-second video of him exists, taken at the MTV Awards in 2002. Eminem is screaming “Without Me” on stage, the crowd is screaming too, and the camera pans across them. Nolan is stood utterly still, wearing a shirt and a blazer, arms fixed tight down his sides, as the actress Brittany Murphy gyrates next to him. He looks like a Victorian scientist, defrosted after a deep sleep, realising with horror that modernity has become more deranged than he could possibly have imagined.
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Nolan’s fastidious character hints at a pre-21st century moral seriousness. John David Washington, the star of Tenet, describes Nolan as “regular”. His sets are regular: he shoots rapidly, between 7am and 7pm, with a short break for lunch. His clothes are regular: a dark jacket over a blue collared shirt, black trousers, durable shoes and a herringbone waistcoat if the weather is cold. The outfit never changes: Nolan has a uniform, not a wardrobe. Michael Caine, Nolan’s most frequent collaborator, speaks of a man who has made millions and millions of dollars, “but none of that has rubbed off on him. He lives exactly the same way.” Nolan believes in deadlines and careful resource allocation. He considers efficiency “a form of control”. No sentiment. No treaties with fashion or whimsy or freedom. “I have to do the best with what I have,” says Jim Gordon, the harried cop in The Dark Knight. Every Nolan hero is a confounded realist.
Realism underlines everything Nolan creates. Studio executives praise him, not for his artistry, but for his sense of “fiscal responsibility”. When they visit his sets, they find miniature recreations of 19th-century England. “Everyone was in suits and ties,” said Brad Grey, then the chairman of Paramount Pictures, when he inspected the set of Interstellar. He might have been a parent visiting Haileybury to find that the masters and the prefects were firmly in control of the place. “I thought, ‘Who are these folks,’ everyone talking very nicely to each other, all civilised?”
Like at Haileybury, the ordered, civilised environments Nolan creates around himself, and his own tidy, collected, buttoned-up mien, are inspired by fear. The boys must be in bed at a precise time. The showers must be freezing. The movie must come in under budget. Decorum must reign. Fiscal responsibility for ever and ever. What happens if the rules disappear? What is the underbelly of realism and rationality? He sees the answer in the work of Francis Bacon, whose art echoes throughout Nolan’s films: “It’s this idea of barely contained horror, this idea of the primal barely held in by the structures of society.” The opposite of order is anarchy.
Every Christopher Nolan movie is about the torture of a man like Christopher Nolan. He is the artist in the Borges story who attempts to portray the world, but discovers that his “patient labyrinth of lines framed the image of his own face”. Nolan’s heroes are solitary, languid, self-punishing rationalists who must be destroyed before they can be redeemed. They are never hedonists. (There is one scene set in a nightclub in the entire Nolan oeuvre: it involves Batman ruthlessly beating anybody there who might be having a good time.)
These men are obsessives, with a taste for the theatrical. Too secretive to ever tell people who they are, they simply demonstrate their genius. “That’s who he is. That’s what it takes,” yells one of the duelling magicians in The Prestige, admiring his rival. “He lives his act!” Too brilliant to be brought down by other people, they can only be thwarted by their own Faustian arrogance. “Genius,” mutters the resentful Lewis Strauss in Oppenheimer, “is no guarantee of wisdom.” Christian Bale’s Batman thinks political order can be established in Gotham through vigilante actions and mass surveillance; instead his actions provoke more intense bloodshed and a violent social revolution in the city. Matthew McConaughey’s astronaut in Interstellar believes he can save his children by piloting a spaceship into another dimension, instead the dislocating strictures of relativity mean that they grow old without him, believing that he is dead. Harry Styles and the pretty Rada boys who play the soldiers in Dunkirk were part of a defence plan that believed Hitler could be held at the Maginot Line. Before they can be rescued, the English are torpedoed, machine gunned, strafed, bombed and drowned by Nolan for their foolishness. In these conservative parables, Nolan’s heroes always believe they are masters of “the structures of society”. And always they find themselves consumed by them.
Whenever these men lose control of their lives, Nolan takes them back to the dormitory at Haileybury. They find themselves physically enclosed: the motel room in Memento, the Alaskan wood cabin in Insomnia, the rotting jail cells in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises, Newgate Prison in The Prestige, a collapsing dream city in Inception, the tesseract in Interstellar, the sinking trawler in Dunkirk, the security clearance hearing room in Oppenheimer. These are tight, airless, joyless spaces. Nolan forces his golden boys to puzzle their way out of these locked rooms. Once they have taken enough punishment, and reconciled themselves to the tragic predicament all human beings find themselves in (what Nolan described to Shone as “the relentless and frightening passage of time by which we all live”), the director lets them out to breathe. No triumph can be achieved without indescribable loss. And every triumph involves a queasy, beaten recognition that the system, however compromised, must go on.
With Oppenheimer, Nolan takes this masochism to a nihilistic new extreme. There is no redemption for his scientist protagonist at all, only destruction. Oppenheimer’s discovery of physics is located within the outbursts of 20th century modernism. We watch as Oppenheimer encounters Picasso, Eliot, Stravinsky and Freud, not just Einstein’s relativity and Niels Bohr’s atomic structures. Oppenheimer’s intellectual adventurousness is accompanied by, or perhaps provokes, his personal licentiousness. He is the only Nolan character to have anything like a sex life. (Nolan frowns upon this.) When Oppenheimer sleeps with his ex-fiancée Jean Tatlock – who happens to have been a member of the Communist Party – the consequence will be the revocation of his security clearance after the Second World War and the end of his ability to influence the direction of the nuclear weaponry he developed to end that conflict.
Oppenheimer does not sympathise with Oppenheimer. The bomb, his life’s work – which Nolan condemns as a modernist project like those of Freud, or Stravinsky, or Picasso – is a hideous error. The film ends with Oppenheimer tremblingly realising that he has unleashed forces that could destroy the planet. You sense Oppenheimer’s, and by extension Nolan’s, longing for a return to the old, straight, predictably lined systems of Isaac Newton’s universe, and to absolute moral values more generally.
Christopher Nolan is an auteur who claims to be a craftsman, an engineer who despises new technology, a starkly conservative Englishman who lives and works in the most liberal city in the United States. Above all, Nolan is a mass entertainer with an elitist disdain for the masses.
Aggregations of human beings in a Nolan movie are usually a bad sign. In the Batman trilogy they mass only as gangsters, or anarchists, or filthy, deluded revolutionaries. In Interstellar the people are reduced to yokels, who no longer have the vision to save themselves from a dusty environmental apocalypse. The one major crowd scene in Oppenheimer, when the scientist receives the acclaim of his colleagues, degenerates into grotesque bacchanal, where people vomit and scream and fondle each other. Nolan is terrified of the masses because he is terrified of himself, and his lucrative ability to tell them stories. “Who are the people?” Elliot Page’s Ariadne asks Leonardo di Caprio’s Cobb in Inception. “They’re projections of my subconscious,” he replies.
Without rules, human beings are nasty and brutish. This lofty insight leads Nolan to believe that the filmmaker and the audience can never be equally matched. He does not do traditional scored research screenings or focus groups. He forced through the cinematic release of Tenet in September 2020 during the pandemic, seemingly unconcerned by Covid circulating in enclosed spaces among herds of unvaccinated people.
The epic scenery of his films – Nolan keeps returning to glaciers, huge, empty glittering cities, and the fizzing, baffling matter of particle physics – feel like intimidation devices. So too do his incomprehensible multi-timeline plots, the insanely loud scores of these pictures, and his delight in forcing actors into masks and helmets and cockpits, where their dialogue can barely be understood. All the fear and flight and anger inside Nolan is contained in these attempts to dominate his audience. If he can dominate us, he can dominate those feelings too.
Haileybury might have been “Darwinian”, but Nolan also happily told Shone that he “enjoyed my time there”. The reconciliation of brutality and cruelty with order and hierarchy is what Nolan always hopes to achieve. The dormitory room might be bleak, but it will always shelter us. Horror is necessary to prevent greater horror. This is Tory propaganda on the grandest possible scale. Distracted by explosions and Batmobiles and wormholes and magic puzzles, Christopher Nolan’s audiences never quite realise what he is whispering to them. They don’t want to.
As Michael Caine’s cockney trickster says in The Prestige: “Now you’re looking for the secret. But you won’t find it. Because you don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled.”
[See also: Oppenheimer’s tormented soul]
This article appears in the 16 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s War on the Future