Mother Night




by Richard Schickel

In wartime, American Howard W. Campbell broadcasts hate propaganda for his adopted country, Nazi Germany. Embedded in his scripts, however, is coded information that supposedly aids his native land in its good fight against genocidal nationalism. When peace comes, the issue of regard arises: Was he war criminal or war hero?

Tough question. And one that Kurt Vonnegut worried brilliantly in Mother Night. Words, after all, have real consequences. The value of espionage, on the other hand, is never easily provable--especially in Campbell's case. When, years after the war, it is discovered that he is still alive, the Soviets, the Israelis and the American neo-Nazis all seek to use him for their own purposes, and there is no one to corroborate his story.

Vonnegut said its moral was "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." But there is more to what may be his best novel than that, as its screen adaptation by writer Robert B. Weide and director Keith Gordon stresses. For Campbell (Nick Nolte, all sweet and sober innocence) is basically an old-fashioned romantic, believing that morality resides solely in being true to one's best self. His refusal to acknowledge the desire of true believers to enlist everyone in their cause--whether malign or benign--brings him first to profound isolation, then to terrible grief.

Fastidiously faithful to Vonnegut's narrative, the film is less true to the cheeky ironies of his tone. This is a loss, but not a fatal one. Well played and handsomely realized, Mother Night is a true movie rarity--an attempt to grapple seriously yet entertainingly with some of the complexities of modern morality.

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