New Line // 1996 // 114 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Harold Gervais (Retired) // August 23rd, 2000
Be careful what you pretend to be.
Mother Night is the 1996 film based on the 1962 novel of the same name by Kurt Vonnegut. The film is well crafted, beautifully performed and yet, in the final analysis, proves to be lacking.
American born Playwright Howard W. Campbell, Jr. (Nick Nolte), is living a comfortable life in pre-war Germany. Married to Germany's most beautiful and talented stage star, Helga Noth (Sheryl Lee), Campbell is a man who thinks he has it all.
Out of nowhere Campbell is approached by Major Frank Wirthanen (John Goodman) and asked to go to work for the Nazis, while acting as a double agent for US intelligence. Appealing to a man he knows to be both romantic and patriotic, Wirthanen manipulates Campbell exactly where he wants him. It proves to be the first of many manipulations Campbell will face in his new existence.
With his performance, Campbell finds himself playing the role with such ease and skill that it causes him to forget who or what he is really working for. He becomes a star within Nazi Germany, speaking the ideals of an evil nation while helping to cause the death of countless Jews, all the while saving numerous Allied Forces lives.
The war, of course, ends. Finding himself alone after the death of his wife and hunted by American troops, Wirthanen once more pops into Campbell's life and whisks him away to New York City.
Once in New York, Campbell moves around with little purpose or motivation. Unable to tell the world that he was working for the Americans, Campbell lives life almost like a ghost...a ghost that one day finally finds a friend in the form of a painter named George Kraft (Alan Arkin). Becoming close to someone after so long, Campbell opens his soul, telling Kraft everything. It is here that events once more spin out of control. Discovered by a right-wing Neo-Nazi group, like a pawn in a game chess, Campbell's life is set in motion. Once more a man without a country, Campbell is forced into hiding.
Holding someone he once thought to be dead close, Campbell finds himself being attacked from all sides. Not knowing who or what he is and not knowing who or what to trust he makes the decision that will cost him much. It is a decision that will prove his worth as a human being and a decision that will ask if Howard W. Campbell Jr., is, the last free American.
I will say this about Nick Nolte (Under Fire, 48 Hrs., North Dallas Forty), with his work in Mother Night, he proves, once more, that he is one of the most committed and fearless Hollywood actors working today.
The movie and the role ask a great deal of its star, and Nolte is there to answer every challenge. He encompasses so much -- Campbell's early vapid days to his discovery of a person within himself that he was not aware of; the sense of loss, not just over the death of his wife but also of the death of his greatest role, a role that will bring him nothing but pain after the curtain has finally come down; to the sense of sad joy that comes with purging ones soul. Nolte delivers the goods. He is an actor that continues to grow and push his own limits. Hats off to him.
Sheryl Lee (John Carpenter's Vampires, Bliss, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me) also delivers strong work in what is basically three different roles. She gives each variation of Helga Noth a different tone and a different sense of self. It's impressive work from another performer who chooses work outside the normal playing field.
In support Alan Arkin (The In-Laws, Catch 22, Slums Of Beverly Hills) and John Goodman (Barton Fink, Sea Of Love, True Stories) offer their usual level of acting. Arkin once more proves that almost no one alive can get a bigger laugh without saying a word as he can and Goodman offer a solid weight to the proceedings. He really is Campbell's fairy blue godmother and his performance is filled with both a sense of confidence and danger.
Director Keith Gordon (Waking The Dead, A Midnight Clear) and cinematographer Tom Richmond make an interesting choice in the way they present the many time periods of the film. The passages set in Campbell's present are shot in an almost dreamy black and white while the movie's past scenes are in color. From a visual stand point it does ask the question, what is real and is any of this really happening?
While Gordon does not posses the nonlinear filmmaking skills of a Soderbergh or an Egoyan, he does a good job of always keeping the balls in the air. The movie never fails to be interesting from either a visual perspective or a storytelling one. So for that, great credit must be given to Gordon and his writer, Robert B. Weide.
Weide writes excellent dialogue that well captures the idiosyncrasies of Kurt Vonnegut's prose and stands as one of the best adaptations of his work.
New Line has done a wonderful job on a film that few have probably heard of. The film is widescreen anamorphic which maintains the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The transfer is almost flawless. Black levels have a purity of depth to them that is so important here because a great deal of the film is done in black and white. The blacks show zero shimmer and no pixel breakup. Grays also are well presented, with everything have a lifelike feel to it. When in color the picture once more does not disappoint. Flesh tones are warm when they need to be, as well as muted when called upon. There was not a trace of edge enhancement that I could see, with the image appearing solid, true and natural. The print used is pristine, with it showing no defects such as scratches or nicks. The film is dark in tone as well as subject matter and New Line comes through with a transfer that is faithful to the material.
There are multiple soundtracks to choose from. Included are an English Surround, a French Surround and the one I listened to, the 5.1 Dolby Digital mix. While the sound will not win any awards for being the loudest, it is one of the better sound presentations I have heard, for it maintains the feeling of the movie. It is a subtle sound mix that, like the film, never really shows its entire hand. Surrounds are quietly used but very effective and dialogue is always clearly separated, not to mention easy to understand. Like the picture, the sound has a lifelike quality that speaks volumes. Michael Convertino's haunting music has great fullness with everything in perfect balance. Background hiss and distortion is also not an issue. Another great job from New Line.
Although not advertised as a special edition, Mother Night is pretty loaded. The disc has not one but two audio commentary tracks. The first is a scene specific track with Director Keith Gordon and Writer Robert B. Weide. The second is with actor Nick Nolte and while Nolte's talk was interesting, if you are looking for information about the making of Mother Night, the first track is the way to go.
Both Gordon and Weide are informative, if a little on the boring side. The men obviously cared about the project, as they both speak with great emotion and pride about it. There are numerous pauses throughout the commentary but these are present so the weight of the scene can be shown and highlighted.
Nolte's track is a whole other matter. Less about Mother Night and more about Nick Nolte's views on just about anything, his discussion can be somewhat difficult going. His talk rambles and there are numerous, as well as long pauses, so this may well not be a track many will enjoy. Certainly the best thing I can say about it is that it was interesting.
The disc has seven deleted scenes plus an early teaser trailer that are available with or without commentary. The level of scenes cut is pretty strong -- no real throwaways here -- but it is obvious that something in the movie had to give. My favorite of the cut scenes features one of my favorite actors, David Strathairn (Limbo, The River Wild, Sneakers) and serves as a nice bookend to his sequence that did remain in the movie.
Mother Night also features a short conversation with author Kurt Vonnegut and Nick Nolte. Vonnegut offers some good commentary on the story, plus looks very pleased with the treatment his work is receiving. A good feature, certainly more interesting than the usual piece of fluff, but I still found it to be somewhat lacking.
The disc is closed out by historical biographies of eight Nazi officers and some theatrical trailers.
Once more, a great package from New Line.
Outside of the fact that Mother Night really does not work, its a great little movie. I think the fault lies more with the fact that some authors just don't translate well into film, than with the skill of the filmmakers. Vonnegut's writing possesses many charms, not the least of which is a refined sense of the ironic. Irony, at least to my way of thinking, is not usually something that is often done well in film. The movie makes a noble effort at it, but instead it plays more as awkward than anything else. The movie also throws a great many ideas at the audience and where in one of his novels Vonnegut has the time to extrapolate and expound upon them, here the ideas are floated forward, fall and die.
The film plays with time in such a surreal way and asks the audience to swallow such large leaps of faith that, in the end, Mother Night collapses upon itself. All the wonderful acting, sensitive direction and writing is not enough to save it.
For all the demands Mother Night places upon the viewer it never gives us anybody to root for or to care about. Everything is so sterile and the world that Campbell moves in is so absurd, that there is nothing left for one to relate to. The existence of Howard W. Campbell Jr. is so sad that the only people that he could have and should have trusted are an aging racist and a black Neo-Nazi. It is this kind of sadness that permeates the entire picture; even Campbell's final act of freedom and salvation is a tragic one.
The movie ends up as a great experiment, a film with great potential to blaze brightly across the sky but instead finds itself coming to an end with a mere fizzle.
For the serious movie fan, Mother Night is worth a shot, probably as a rental. There is some wonderful acting here and New Line once more proves why they are among the leaders in the world of DVD. So there is some joy in Mudville and I'm sure there are those who will embrace the movie for all the things I perceived as faults.
For those looking to purchase, well, give it a rental. It is a movie that tries to engage and entertain, noble intentions to be sure, its just too bad that in the end, it manages to do neither.
New Line is acquitted of all charges. Spectacular things are expected and this courtroom is rarely let down. Our thanks.
Kurt Vonnegut is also thanked for great works of prose and this judge hopes that one day soon someone will figure out how to bring those joys to the screen. In this matter Mother Night fails and is found guilty. Sentence is pending with this courtroom being dismissed.
Review content copyright © 2000 Harold Gervais; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 114 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Seven Deleted Scenes
* Commentary Track with Director Keith Gordon and Writer Robert B. Weide
* Commentary Track with Actor Nick Nolte
* A Conversation with Kurt Vonnegut and Nick Nolte
* Historical Biographies of Eight Nazi Officers
* Theatrical Trailers