Retro Film Review: Mother Night (1996)
The events in Iraq reminded us that all regime changes, regardless of where, when and how have happened, have one thing in common - prominent members of the former ruling elite claiming that they have always tried to undermine the system from within. Those claims are usually met with great deal of scepticism, since many reason that the loyalty of those people to new liberators and their noble principles is in best case as candid as the loyalty towards old tyrannical regime. However, history also records few cases of people who indeed tried to undermine tyrannical systems from within and sometimes paid huge price for doing so. One fictional example could be found in Mother Night, 1996 drama directed by Keith Gordon.
The plot, based on the novel by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., begins in 1961. Howard W. Campbell Jr. (played by Nick Nolte) is American playwright who awaits war crimes trial in Israeli prison and remembers the extraordinary and tragic story of his life. In early 1930s he used to live in Germany and there he became famous for his plays, got married with beautiful theatre star Helga Noth (played by Sheryl Lee) and cared very little about politics. Shortly before the start of WW2 he was approached by Major Frank Wirtanen (played by John Goodman), mysterious US intelligence operative, and offered an opportunity to do great service to his country. The plan was to infiltrate Nazi regime by volunteering to broadcast Nazi propaganda messages on German state radio; those broadcasts would also include special coded messages for Allied intelligence services. Intrigued by possibility of adventure, Campbell agreed and quickly rose through Nazi ranks, becoming one of the most celebrated Americans in Germany and most despised Nazi-loving traitor everywhere else. After the end of war, with wife dead in Soviet attack, and his own government refusing to acknowledge his services, Campbell was penniless, universally despised and forced to spend years in anonymity of small New York apartment. All changed when he was discovered by small group of American neo Nazis who viewed him as one of their greatest idols.
Great literature seldom makes great movies, and the works of Kurt Vonnegut Jr., one of America's greatest writers, aren't exception. His style doesn't translate to cinema very well. Additional problem was in potential controversies - some people accused Mother Night of being anti-Semitic. All that required unconventional film maker, someone willing to take risks. Those risks were taken by former actor Keith Gordon who obviously had talent to get the best out of his former colleagues. Nick Nolte shines in his difficult and thankless role of a man who isn't quite sure whether he is a hero or a villain. Sheryl Lee is also very effective in her complex role. Nolte's and Lee's efforts are aided by impressive cast of character actors, among whom most notable are John Goodman and Alan Arkin. However, Gordon's fine directing and even finer cast come very close to being wasted somewhere in the second half of film. When Mother Night starts showing cartoonish neo-Nazis, including the character known as "Black Fuhrer of Harlem", it is somewhat difficult to take it seriously. And the film does handle some serious issues, some of them very important in our day and age. Sad odyssey of a protagonist shows how the individuals in modern world are judged by their image and not by their work or virtues of their character. And sometimes this misperception can affect even the person itself with tragic consequences. Mother Night, well-played and with obvious ability to make viewers think, is one of those hidden 1990s gems that would probably gain more recognition in the decades to come.
RATING: 7/10 (+++)
(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.movies.reviews on May 20th 2003)
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Movie URL: https://www.themoviedb.org/movie/20318-mother-night