Adapted from Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 novel by actor-director Keith Gordon, Mother Night delivers a haunting, lingering impact thanks to its unsettling core theme, summarized by Vonnegut thusly: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
In this case, the pretender is one Howard W. Campbell Jr. (Nick Nolte), an American playwright living in Germany during the onset of World War II. The thoroughly apolitical Campbell hobnobs with Nazi leaders who are part of his social circle, which makes him an asset to an American intelligence agent (John Goodman) who recruits the author for an unorthodox assignment: to operate undercover as a radio commentator broadcasting virulent Nazi propaganda broadcasts to US troops in Europe which are in fact laced with info to aid Allied forces.
Campbell is a little too convincing, however, and when the war ends he finds himself branded as a traitor, and goes into hiding in New York for 15 years. Much of the story is told in flashback, as Campbell composes his memoirs in an Israeli jail cell, waiting to be tried for war crimes.
As it spins through history much like Vonnegut’s brilliant Slaughterhouse Five (the Campbell character makes a cameo in that novel and its own screen version) it delivers a bizarre tale that is equal parts tragedy and farce. Gordon juggles the highly complex narrative (essentially three different stories tied inextricably together) quite well, though he sometimes fails to maintain the necessary level of irony. Ultimately, it is Nolte’s engaging and fearless performance that drives the movie. He’s able to capture the cynical and satirical nature of Vonnegut’s story, a shape-shifting examination of how inconsistent one’s sense of morality can sometimes be.