I figured out Tenet*

Why so much of Christopher Nolan's new film is set offshore

After a weekslong pressure campaign by my husband, I finally watched Christopher Nolan’s new movie. It brings me no pleasure to report that I didn’t really understand it, either. 

The film follows our unnamed agent/hero (John David Washington) and his sidekick, Neil (Robert Pattinson) on a mission to stop Satar, an evil Russian played by Kenneth Branagh, from destroying the world. The plot centers around Satar’s access to “inverted objects”, which can travel through time backwards and pose an existential threat to humanity if they take the form of bullets or nukes (spoiler: they do.) There are car chases, gunfights, an art forgery, a very tall and tragic wife, and loads of confusing dialogue. I don’t really care for all that stuff, but what was interesting to me was how the action in the movie takes place almost entirely offshore: in yachts, offshore wind farms, and notably, freeports in Oslo and Tallinn.

At the beginning of the film, Washington and Pattison break into the Oslo facility by getting a buddy to drive an airplane into it (as is often the case, the warehouse is adjacent to the airport). At its climax, our heroes return to the storage facility and fight versions of themselves at different points in time. Along the way, minor characters come and go from Satar’s yacht anchored off the Amalfi coast, and Washington does pullups inside an aquatic wind turbine, shedding his former self in kind of liminal state while he waits for his next mission.

These types of locales are easy ways to visually represent the lifestyles of the ultra-rich. But it’s time that’s central here, not just to the movie but to the concept of the freeport, and the very functioning of the offshore world.

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In the broadest sense, freeports are warehouses or gated areas where certain tax and customs duties don’t apply. They are what academics call “onshore offshore”: spaces that geographically are within a country’s borders, but for the purposes of customs, are considered beyond them. Dara Orenstein, the author of an excellent new book on the subject, likens them “gated communities for capital.”

The specifics vary by jurisdiction, time period, and contents, but for the sake of dissecting this already-complicated movie, just assume that the model for Nolan’s movie is something like Luxembourg’s Le Freeport.

Here’s how it describes its function:

LE FREEPORT | Luxembourg is a fully integrated facility, where functional design meets technological excellence. It is the world’s safest storage and trading platform for your valuables.

LE FREEPORT sets new standards, demanded by investors and collectors alike: a purpose built facility combining cutting edge technology, efficient logistics as well a large spectrum of services and expertise.

LE FREEPORT is the ideal platform for securing, servicing and preserving works of art and other valuables.

Christopher Nolan could not have done a better job of muddling what the facility actually does, which is really quite simple: it stores expensive art, wines, cars, etc. risk- and tax-free until they are ready for their next destination, be it someone’s living room, a museum, or another cubby down the hall in the same freeport. There used to be a lot of intrigue around these places, but regulation has improved somewhat over the past decade to prevent things like illegally-acquired artworks from being hidden away. It’s important to note that these aren’t lawless spaces. They are state-sanctioned to the max. Still, the way these warehouses permit and even encourage rich people to buy and sell art without incurring sales or customs tax, along with the fact that they put some of the world’s greatest artworks in essentially a black box, have drawn persistent and legitimate critiques that the industry tries very hard to counter.

The movie gets the industry spin just right. In an early scene, Washington and Pattinson take a tour of the Oslo facility with a young man who, in hushed tones, assures them that there is nothing shady going on here—it’s about security. “Our clients choose us because we have no priority beyond their property,” the man says.

This was almost word for word what I was told when reporting on Arcis, a similar facility in Harlem, a couple of years ago (Arcis is now closed.) To get in, you had to get your irises scanned. The generator had backup generators. Every item was accounted for with the company’s proprietary software. It felt like a place out of time.

Another point that people in this business insist upon is that the facilities are not a way to avoid taxes, but merely to suspend them. From Le Freeport’s “Misconceptions” section on their website**:

“Just like in thousands of bonded warehouses under customs supervision, there is naturally no general exoneration of taxes, but rather a mere SUSPENSION of the local consumption tax (VAT) and of the (possible) Customs duties, for as long as the goods are stored at LE FREEPORT.”

This is true; in fact, it’s in the freeport’s DNA. Hundreds of years ago, freeports were located in actual ports, and featured silos so that grain and other perishables could be stored for a few nights while ships docked, restocked and changed crew. The rub in 17th century Livorno was that grain could go bad; it could not languish in storage forever without losing its value. But in climate-controlled and ultra-secure environment in 2020, luxury goods can remain intact forever. That’s the whole pitch!

There is, then, not much preventing a painting from being bought, sold, and bought, and sold forever inside the four walls of the freeport, thereby avoiding various taxes indefinitely. Some freeports even have galleries to show art to prospective buyers inside the warehouse, and outside of national space and time.

This very real and practical suspension of time that freeports engage in daily is why they’re a brilliant setting for a big action movie about time-travel. Because if we accept that time is to some degree a construct, it makes sense that those in power will manipulate it to their advantage. In the real world, the government wields this power by allowing freeports to “suspend” taxes, but also by doing things like making us suffer through daylight savings time. In the universe of Nolan’s action movie, this power is instead concentrated in an “inverted object”, controlled by its owner, who can dictate its course.

I can’t guarantee to you that Nolan thought this hard about these things… but since this is a movie that lends itself to endless online prognosticating, I want to share one more detail that suggests he did.

In the U.S, the vast majority of “freeports” are actually called foreign trade zones and they are used for boring things like manufacturing lawn mowers, not storing Picassos. FTZs, too, are a kind of time/tax hack.

When the government imposes tariffs on the import of raw materials, like steel, but not on the import of a finished product, like a lawn mower, companies might bring the steel into the free zone, manufacture the product, then import it. During manufacturing in the zone, the steel exists “outside” of ordinary American time and space in a suspended, liminal state for the purposes of customs. It is the finished lawn mower that ultimately enters the U.S space-time continuum; and, being a lawn mower, it incurs (lower or non-existent) lawn mower tariffs instead of the fees on its component parts.

This mechanism has a most curious name. It’s called an inverted tariff.

*Not really

**Why, you might be thinking, does an innocent warehouse need a MISCONCEPTIONS tab on its website?