© 1996 Toronto Star Newspapers, Ltd., The Toronto Star, Nov 18, 1996
by Joe Fox
Fair-haired boy Nick Nolte looks like the all-American boy. He also looks like an all-Aryan Nazi, which makes him perfect as the hero-villain in the movie adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's novel Mother Night. Director Keith Gordon makes a valiant attempt to translate Vonnegut's deeply ironic world from print to the big creen. He mostly succeeds in that difficult task, thanks to a fine performance by Nolte.
Vonnegut tackles some very serious issues in Mother Night and they are as relevant today as they were during World War II and in 1961 when he published the novel.
Nolte plays Howard Campbell Jr., an American playwright living in Berlin before the war.
He is recruited by a U.S. government agent (an unusually subtle John Goodman) to broadcast vile anti-Semitic and anti-American diatribes on the radio. The scripts are filled with code words and sounds that pass on valuable information when listened to by American agents.
Only a few people know his mission, which proves fateful in later years when, living in obscurity in Greenwich Village, he is outed by Holocaust survivors.
The movie begins with Campbell - unable to convince anyone that he was only acting when he was a Nazi hatemonger - being locked in a cell in an Israeli jail to await trial. He neighbor is Adolph Eichmann.
While waiting trial, he is told to write his memoirs, which gives the movie its storyline told in flashbacks.
"Be careful what you pretend to be," he writes, "because in the end, you are what you pretend to be."
He relates his willingness to accept the radio role as the "last free American" because he is essentially a ham and because he has no interest in leaving Berlin and his beautiful actress wife, played by Sheryl Lee (the murder victim at the beginning of the Twin Peaks TV miniseries). Patriotism doesn't seem to have anything to do with it.
After spending the war glorifying the Reich and denouncing Americans and their president "Franklin Delano Rosenfeld," and with his wife reported dead, Campbell accepts his spymaster's offer to be spirited out of Berlin as the Nazis succumb to defeat.
Back in the United States, he gradually resumes his life and makes friends with an artist (Alan Arkin) who lives in his run-down apartment building. After his past is revealed, he is visited by the head of a white supremacist organization who hails him as a hero.
Nolte is superb as he shows Campbell gradually coming to the realization that, like his wife and her sister and his friends in Berlin, his new-found admirers like him because they assume he really is a bigot who inspired Germans to kill millions of Jews.
The film is very slow moving. Insights come few and far between and it takes a dedicated viewer to hang in there for payoffs sprinkled throughout what seems like a very long film.
But, ultimately, it works because it cashes in on Vonneguts' biting humor. Bursts of laughter amidst such unfunny subject matter show the filmmakers have captured the essence of Vonnegut's darkly comic vision of a man - and, by extension, all of us - struggling to discover whether his actions make him a hero or a villain.
Vonnegut provides no easy answers in deciding who is a good guy and who is a bad guy.
The search for simplistic morality to solve complicated issues continues, of course, as the rise of the neo-Nazi movement today proves, which makes satirizing the quintessential all- American hero as the equivalent of a Nazi hero so appropriate today.
It's always easy for Canadians to laugh at Americans, so we should remember our own Grant Bristow, who was recruited by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service to infiltrate the Heritage Front.
Come to think of it, Nick Nolte would be ideal to play Bristow when his story is put on film.