The Moral Dilemma Of ‘Tenet’ Showing In Theaters In The Middle Of A Pandemic

It all started on Slack when my editor asked what I had planned for coverage related to Tenet, the Christopher Nolan movie that will be the first noteworthy movie back in theaters in the United States, as a pandemic that’s killed over 170,000 Americans continues to ravage the country. This is not an unusual question I was being asked, one I’ve been asked too many times to count, related to whatever movie happens to be coming out soon. But, yes, this time was different in that I didn’t really have an answer. Eventually, after hemming and hawing, I admitted I’ve been giving this one a lot of thought and was having a hard time with it, morally. The thing I keep asking myself is, if I wouldn’t walk into a movie theater right now, how can I cover a movie that might potentially influence someone to do that? And then my editor said, “Well, why don’t you write that piece?” So, that’s what this is.

And look, I don’t want this to come off like I’m tsk-tsk-ing anyone who has already decided they are going to see Tenet in a theater. I just don’t want to be a part of anyone’s decision-making process because, frankly, the whole thing just doesn’t feel right. Well, I guess that’s not totally true, because if you ask me if you should go to a theater right now, my answer will be, “absolutely not.” Again, I wouldn’t go, so how on earth can I write anything that makes it seem like going to a theater right now is at all normal or a smart thing to do? Honestly, it’s pretty unbelievable we are even at a point where this is even happening.

It’s not only that I wouldn’t go, but right now, where I live, I can’t go. New York City will not have open theaters and Governor Andrew Cuomo recently said, “I am sure there is a whole group people who say, ‘I cannot live without going to the movies.’ But on a relative risk scale, a movie theater is less essential and poses a high risk. It is congregant. It is one ventilation system. You are seated there for a long period of time.” AV Club asked experts on infectious disease and the conclusion was, “It’s just about the last thing I’d do right now.” So this is obviously a dangerous thing to do, but studios and theaters are throttling full speed ahead into the danger because, well, there’s money to be made.

I stayed in New York City in April and May when the pandemic was at its worst here. If you don’t live in New York City, you might be tired of hearing about the nonstop ambulance sirens, but it’s true. It was a literal nightmare. And I still have nightmares about it all and probably will the rest of my life. A publicist emailed me about why I was having so much trouble with theaters reopening and my response was, “Having a mobile refrigerated morgue truck parked a few blocks from your apartment changes a person.” I wasn’t trying to be glib, it’s just the truth. In April, I remember looking at those trucks and thinking, well, if things go south for me, I guess that’s where I’ll wind up. Loaded onto a truck parked on the street. And back then, I never, ever even considered we’d be trying to come up with excuses to get a bunch of people together to sit in a room together for a couple of hours before this thing was contained. My main wish in life right now is not to see Tenet. My main wish is never to have to experience the nightmare New York City went through in April ever again. And if keeping movie theaters closed (as well as most inside entertainment events) prevents that, which it sure seems like it does, that’s what should be done.

Here’s the problem I have with at least most theater chains right now. And I get this question a lot: “What’s the difference between going to a grocery store and a theater?” Look, I’m not an expert, so I’m just going off what the experts are saying and using a little bit of common sense. But a person isn’t in a grocery store for over two hours, just sitting there in one place with the same group of people all breathing in the same air together. And in a grocery store people are at least supposed to be wearing masks. Yes, people break the rule, but at least the rule exists, and it’s easy to spot people who are not following the rule. And if you see someone without a mask you can do everything you can to avoid them. A person’s one on one exposure with everyone else in the store is fairly short. The theater chains that even do require masks all have a pretty asinine loophole that allows you to take the mask off while “eating or drinking.” So, yeah, that could wind up being pretty much the whole movie as Fred Steadman (I just made up a name), or whoever, chows down on his extra-large popcorn while spraying viral particles out to everyone else in the theater watching Tenet. Large theater chains make their money selling concessions. So of course there’s a loophole in safety measures so they can do that. As it turns out, the virus that has killed 170,000 Americans doesn’t take a break while you eat your Sno-Caps and your Junior Mints.

Look at this answer from Josh Boone, the director of the oft-delayed New Mutants, about if movies should be playing in theaters: “I mean the last act of the movie was designed to be seen on big screens, like IMAX screens, like it has a massive bear in it and crazy sound design […] I do think people should be going to the movies. If they can go to a house party with 700 people without masks on, they can put on a mask and go to a movie and maybe get their rocks off in a more productive way.”

So that’s the “movie theaters in a pandemic are good” argument? That there’s a giant bear? And that a bunch of idiots had a party, so therefore why not? What are we even talking about here? (Also, this has nothing to do with Josh Boone who I actually feel for a bit because he’s been put in a tough situation, but I’ve noticed a lot of the directors and filmmakers telling you to go back to theaters because nothing can beat the theatrical presentation, even in a pandemic, all have their own private home theaters.)

And theater chains are making a big show about how they are disinfecting everything, which only creates the illusion of safety. This is, as The Atlantic dubbed it, “Hygiene Theater.” Basically, the amount of people who contract COVID-19 from surfaces is such a minuscule number compared to how it’s actually and easily spread, by hanging around on particles in the air in indoor areas, like, say, a movie theater.

It’s been pretty frustrating watching entity after entity reopen, then fail. We, as a country, didn’t put in the work to get the numbers down, but we want the rewards anyway. Everything about this stems from a lack of leadership from the top down. What happens with no leadership at the top is everyone else just passes the buck. The word from the studios releasing movies, and the theaters, is some form of, “We will follow every local guideline.” But there are hard-hit places with either virtually no guidelines or extremely lax guidelines. So what this does, when there’s an outbreak, is let the theaters say, “Oh, well, we didn’t do anything wrong, we followed all the local rules.” And you’re going to be seeing a lot of that over the coming weeks. Because we already saw it when bars and restaurants opened up too early. As we are seeing now — colleges are opening, then shutting down because of outbreaks. It’s like everyone has to touch the hot stove themselves to be sure it’s burning, and movie theaters are next in line. It’s an endless cycle of, “Well, nothing seems to stop the virus from spreading when large groups of people get together, but I think WE have it figured out.” I guess I worry the most about people who don’t pay attention and, maybe even somewhat reasonably, think, well, a movie theater wouldn’t be open right now if it wasn’t safe, right? Then they read a glowing review. Maybe I even wrote that review? When the truth is, right now, the people in charge certainly aren’t worried about your safety.

(It must be noted that the extremely strict NBA and NHL bubbles seem to be working. Of course, the NHL is playing all its games in Canada, a country that actually got their national numbers down to a good level. Major League Baseball does not have a bubble and has been plagued by infections. So think about it this way: if Major League Baseball, with all of its money and resources and testing, can’t stop its players, who they’ve invested millions of dollars into, from getting sick, how in the world can movie theaters protect you?)

Here’s some honest truth: my job kind of depends on movie theaters opening again and you going to theaters. You going to movies indirectly benefits me. And my goodness, I’d love to see a movie in a theater right now. I’d love to see Tenet. I’d also love to go to bars! But it’s not safe right now. For me, neither of these things are worth getting a disease scientists don’t even fully understand yet. And we didn’t do what was needed to get the numbers down like other places in the world, but we are going forward with this anyway as thousands of people die from COVID every day. And look, this isn’t some grand proclamation from me that I’ll never cover movies playing in theaters. Morally, it certainly doesn’t feel right, but I don’t know how long that’s feasible and still be able to do this job. But like I said, seeing mobile morgue trucks a few blocks from where you live sure does change a person.

And, 100 percent, I get that a lot of smaller theaters are really struggling. I have so much empathy for them, but that’s why there should be government support, not putting more people at risk to keep them in operation. And here in New York, Broadway being shut down now at least until early 2021 has been devastating. The whole city has been devastated. But we also saw the alternative and it was a nightmare. And that’s a reason why I don’t have the answer to any of this. It’s all such a mess. It didn’t have to be a mess, but it is a mess. The only thing I know for sure is I wouldn’t go to a movie theater right now if my life depended on it.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.