Mother Night

on November 01, 1996 by Kim Williamson
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   Although the filmmakers have said they intended to capture the comic irony of war veteran Kurt Vonnegut's World War II novel, there are (thankfully) only two moments when their adaptation shunts from its dark mood of low tragedy: during the opening credits, when the "a whyaduck production" title card appears, and midway through the movie, when a stairwell meeting between two morally opposed sides dissolves into slapstick. Other than that, and partly due to the sustained intimacy of direction by Keith Gordon ("A Midnight Clear") and partly to the relentlessly somber strings-driven score of Michael Convertino ("Children of a Lesser God"), this "Mother Night" becomes an unflinching tale about a human collision of general and specific ethics.
   At that nexus is Howard Campbell (Nick Nolte), an American expatriate playwright finding literary success in pre-WWII Germany. After Hitler's ascendance, he's contacted by a U.S. operative, Frank Wirtanen (John Goodman), who tells him, "You're obsessed with the notion of pure hearts and heroism," and offers him "every playwright's dream"--to create the most challenging role and then get to play it himself. Campbell agrees to be a very secret sort of double agent; Giving passionately anti-Semitic, anti-Allies radio broadcasts from Berlin, Campbell transmits coded information provided by an Allied mole. Just as no one else inside the Reich knows his true purpose, however, only Wirtanen, the OSS head and President Roosevelt know outside the Reich, and none of them, Wirtanen has warned Howard going in, will ever talk. After Germany's defeat, Campbell returns to the States, a man broken by the aid and support that, however unintentionally, he gave to the enemy and by the death at Russian hands of his beloved German actress wife, Helga Noth ("Backbeat's" Sheryl Lee), with whom to escape the hell of Nazi Germany and his own conscience he formed "a nation of two." Forgotten by society and his country, Howard lives with no one, speaking only occasionally with a Jewish doctor ("A Midnight Clear's" Arye Gross) whose relatives succumbed at the death camps. Eventually, he befriends a lonely painter (Alan Arkin), who bears a surprising secret of his own, and is discovered by a group of American Neo-Nazis who wish to celebrate Howard's work for the Fuhrer.
   The story is told through Howard in flashback from an Israeli jail (where his cell is underneath that of an unseen Adolph Eichmann, voiced by Henry Gibson), and as much as Nolte failed to deliver anything in his recent "Mulholland Falls" turn Nolte delivers fully here. His character's inner bankruptcy plays not only across his craggy face but also along his scrapy voice, and he makes believable rather than bathetic the most difficult element of the film: his undying love for Helga. In their character turns, Arkin and Goodman are right on the deutschmark, and Lee and Gross succeed in less-intricate performances. Robert B. Weide's script allows two faults, in that the audience is twice told in the factuality of flashback voiceover things that turn out not to be true, generating plot shocks but by illicit means. Director/producer Gordon's Battle of the Bulge film "A Midnight Clear," released by the now defunct Interstar in 1992, was made for $2 million and so had explosions that looked more like an M-80 than 88mm--yet Gordon captured the humane essence of the William Wharton novel. His budget has only trebled here with this Fine Line release, but he succeeds again in a film set in a period and dealing with subject matter he clearly "gets," and even better the explosions here are of the more profound psychological variety, and they go off with a bigger bang than any cannon could provide. Starring Nick Nolte, Sheryl Lee, Alan Arkin and John Goodman. Directed by Keith Gordon. Written by Robert B. Weide. Produced by Keith Gordon and Robert B. Weide. A Fine Line release. Drama. Rated R for a scene of sexuality. Running time: 114 min. Screened at the Montreal fest. Opens 11/1 NY/LA/Tor
Tags: Nick Nolte, Sheryl Lee, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Robert B. Weide, Keith Gordon, A Fine Line release, Drama, bankruptcy, explorsions, challenging, country, death camps, painter
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