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Vonnegut’s Style Obvious In ‘Mother Night’

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. may, or may not, have been the voice of a generation. During his heyday of the mid-1960s-early-‘70s, the novelist enjoyed his share of fans. But a good many readers, and quite a number of critics, have tended to dismiss his novels as obvious, inane and - worse - terminally precious.

This much, however, is unassailable: No one has better captured the feeling of what it’s like to survive unimaginable horror.

In his most acclaimed book, 1969’s “Slaughterhouse 5,” Vonnegut fictionalized his own experience as a World War II prisoner of war an experience that saw him survive the furious fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany, which resulted in the deaths of as many as 135,000 people.

All of his work, though, is marked one way or another by this ordeal. Whether he’s writing about Earth being one big mistake (“The Sirens of Titan”) or the self-absorbed games we play with potential Armageddon (“Cat’s Cradle”), Vonnegut’s style, especially in his early novels, is one of restrained rage. Like Billy Pilgrim, he stays mostly under the covers.

But the anger is there, especially in “Mother Night,” Vonnegut’s 1961 novel that director Keith Gordon has adapted as a movie starring Nick Nolte.

Gordon’s film, based on a screenplay by Robert B. Weide, is Vonnegut inviolate. It follows a character, Howard Campbell Jr. (Nolte), who is American-born but German-raised.

This sense of dual citizenship makes Campbell the perfect candidate for American intelligence agents eager to infiltrate Hitler’s inner circle as he poises to take Europe, and maybe the world, by force.

Campbell, though, is not a fighter. His loyalty is not to a country or even an idea but to a person, his German lover Helga (Sheryl Lee), and to a passion, the love that he believes will protect Helga and him against a world gone mad. Silly man.

Still, he agrees to spy for America. Becoming the European version of Tokyo Rose, he broadcasts vicious, Jew-baiting propaganda over the airwaves. The difference is that his essays, with direction from other intelligence sources, contain coded messages.

Campbell’s tragedy is that no one except his immediate superiors know about his double-agent status. And as they refuse to divulge this information, citing reasons of national security, he is left to dangle in the winds of post-war retribution.

Told in flashback from Campbell’s cell in an Israeli prison, the movie - like “Slaughterhouse 5” - moves back and forth in time. We see Campbell as a boy, as a young man struck dumb by love, as the steely-voiced propagandist, as a war survivor old before his time and, finally, as a lonely man pecking out his memoirs on a manual typewriter as he waits for his war-crimes trial.

What this all amounts to is an incredibly touching testament about the vagaries of loyalty, the different light that individual perception places on what is called the truth and the heartbreak of ordinary people trying to find a measure of joy in the midst of overwhelming cataclysm.

Gordon, who also directed the World War II-themed film “A Midnight Clear,” has rendered Vonnegut’s novel in a style that takes full advantage of cinematographer Tom Richmond’s ability to shift smoothly from black and white to color.

He also has pulled from Nolte perhaps the performance of his career. As Campbell, the aging actor finds a shading of subtlety that had eluded him over most of his two decades of playing going-to-seed athletic types.

He’s matched by a dual-role performance put in by Lee (Laura Palmer of “Twin Peaks” fame) as Campbell’s lover, Alan Arkin as an artist who befriends Campbell when he settles in post-war New York and John Goodman as Campbell’s recruiter.

Considering all that happens, not just to Campbell but everyone he meets - and, indeed, the entire world - Vonnegut’s moralizing could seem to be a little glib.

“I suppose the moral here is that you must be careful what you pretend to be,” Campbell says, “because in the end, you really are what you pretend to be.”

What may seem glib to one person, though, often is another person’s desperate attempt to remain sane in an insane world. When forced against his own psychological wall, Vonnegut typically opts for a gentle recounting of sadness and loss.

So it goes.

, DataTimes MEMO: These 2 sidebars appeared with the story:

1. “Mother Night” Locations: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Directed by Keith Gordon, starring Nick Nolte, Sheryl Lee, Alan Arkin, John Goodman and Kirsten Dunst Running time: 1:43 Rating: R 2. OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other critics say about “Mother Night:” Chris Hewitt/St. Paul Pioneer Press: What keeps “Mother Night” from greatness is the crucial miscasting of Sheryl Lee as Nolte’s beloved wife. It’s a vital role - she shows us that there is one thing the apolitical Nolte believes in - but Lee is awful. Her best performance was as Laura Palmer in “Twin Peaks” and she should stick to playing dead people. Jay Carr/The Boston Globe: Keith Gordon never makes trivial or dismissible films, yet “Mother Night,” his latest and most ambitious, remains a handsome and intelligent stab at dramatically recalcitrant material. Rene Rodriguez/Miami Herald: A thought-provoking drama on the nature of heroism and the crushing weight of conscience, “Mother Night” is the third and most impressive film from actor-turned-director Keith Gordon, who is making a career out of turning tricky novels into faithful, assured films. Jack Mathews/Newsday: “Mother Night” is a dark and disturbing tale, unrelieved by the offhand humor of Vonnegut’s prose. Gordon has made no compromises. Michael H. Price/Fort Worth Star-Telegram: … a numbingly uneven muddle. The brilliance of (Nick) Nolte’s performance helps to obscure flaws that might otherwise be crippling.

These 2 sidebars appeared with the story:

1. “Mother Night” Locations: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Directed by Keith Gordon, starring Nick Nolte, Sheryl Lee, Alan Arkin, John Goodman and Kirsten Dunst Running time: 1:43 Rating: R 2. OTHER VIEWS Here’s what other critics say about “Mother Night:” Chris Hewitt/St. Paul Pioneer Press: What keeps “Mother Night” from greatness is the crucial miscasting of Sheryl Lee as Nolte’s beloved wife. It’s a vital role - she shows us that there is one thing the apolitical Nolte believes in - but Lee is awful. Her best performance was as Laura Palmer in “Twin Peaks” and she should stick to playing dead people. Jay Carr/The Boston Globe: Keith Gordon never makes trivial or dismissible films, yet “Mother Night,” his latest and most ambitious, remains a handsome and intelligent stab at dramatically recalcitrant material. Rene Rodriguez/Miami Herald: A thought-provoking drama on the nature of heroism and the crushing weight of conscience, “Mother Night” is the third and most impressive film from actor-turned-director Keith Gordon, who is making a career out of turning tricky novels into faithful, assured films. Jack Mathews/Newsday: “Mother Night” is a dark and disturbing tale, unrelieved by the offhand humor of Vonnegut’s prose. Gordon has made no compromises. Michael H. Price/Fort Worth Star-Telegram: … a numbingly uneven muddle. The brilliance of (Nick) Nolte’s performance helps to obscure flaws that might otherwise be crippling.



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