© 1996 The New York Times Company, The New York Times, Nov 1, 1996
By Janet Maslin
Kurt Vonnegut's fiction has never really found its way to the movies. The author's curmudgeonly popularity as a great campus favorite for baby boomers has had much to do with the simplicity and cosmic jokeyness of his writing, qualities that should translate forthrightly to the screen. On the other hand, such spare and fanciful novels leave much to the imagination. And Mr. Vonnegut's wry moral ambiguity is as elusive as his whimsy. The "hi ho" or "so it goes" that works as a shrug on the page has no easy counterpart on screen.
So Mother Night, directed by Keith Gordon from a screenplay by Robert B. Weide, represents a thoughtful and ambitious effort to catch lightning in a bottle. The lightning in this case: Mr. Vonnegut's book about a character called Howard W. Campbell Jr., a famous Nazi propagandist who also happens to be an American spy. Howard is a successful playwright who spent World War II engaged in a dramatic challenge: inventing a racist character for himself and then playing the role to the hilt. The book wonders what remains of Howard's decency after such a poisonous deception.
Mother Night begins in 1961, after Howard (fervently played by Nick Nolte) has been imprisoned by Israeli authorities who do not ponder the fine points of his quandary. With an unseen Adolf Eichmann (voice supplied by Henry Gibson) for his cellblock neighbor, Howard sits at his typewriter and constructs an account of his past. He remembers his great love for Helga (Sheryl Lee), the beautiful German actress who, like much about Howard's life, is not exactly what she seems.
He remembers his pledge as a propagandist that evil will remain triumphant "as long as there are men and women who listen to their guts, instead of their minds."
There's an Alice in Wonderland quality to much of what Howard recalls, a topsy-turvy lightness that the film does not fully bring to life. Mr. Gordon, the former actor who admirably adapted A Midnight Clear from the antiwar novel by William Wharton, treats this material seriously without always giving it much edge.
The camera moves in slow, determined fashion without a distinct point of view. Events can unfold in a plain, uninflected manner, like sentences without punctuation.
But Mother Night, with a title from Faust that denotes pure evil and the monstrousness of Howard's charade, finds strength in the obvious paradoxes of this story and in its taste for the unexpected. Some of the supporting performances, especially Alan Arkin's turn as Howard's foxy New York neighbor, capture the full gameness of Vonnegut characters, philosophically bemused and not surprised by anything. Also here, in much the same spirit: John Goodman as the character Howard regards as "my blue fairy godmother," guiding him through the world of espionage. Kirsten Dunst appears in the small role of a very young nihilist, a strange and deadpan casualty of war.
The film makes sparing and careful use of the racist and anti-Semitic propaganda that is spewed by Howard in his professional capacity and that comes back to haunt him in ways he could never have imagined. If Mr. Gordon's spare film does not describe Howard's journey toward accountability with the full array of Vonnegut embellishments, it's still worthy enough to do this story justice.