You see, bad reviews vary endlessly. When faced with the raw anger one feels towards a bad movie it is easy to channel this rage into a sort of maligned creativity and to bring forth a new, humorous, and often refreshing movie review. When a movie is good, however, the critic is faced with the difficulty of coming up with something good to say about it. Put in layman's terms, we are often faced with writer's block.
At least a dozen times I have watched Mother Night. At least a dozen times I have been blown away by its lyricism, by its dark humor and by its raw dramatic power. At least a dozen times I have had absolutely no clue how to word my praises.
My undying desire to be somewhat original in my critique has led me to the conclusion that what I do so often is not a critique per se, but instead a column. A pondering on the nature of things where I try to offer a new and interesting perspective on an old debate.
With this self-revelation, the subject of the debate brought forth by Mother Night is why people are so threatened by touchy subjects that they ignore perfectly great films.
Mother Night, the story of American spy Howard W. Campbell Jr., a man who has worked his way up to the top of the Nazi propaganda ministry, lost his wife (the only thing that made his life worth living in his eyes), and now, 15 years later, is being forced to confront the question "did I do more harm than good?" is one of those films that is perfectly inoffensive to all who watch it yet pissed everyone who didn't see it off on principle. It deals highly with moral questions, coming to the point early on in the quote "be careful what you pretend to be, because, in the end, you are what you pretend to be." Yet the chief complaint that I have heard about the film is that it is too offensive, too anti-Semitic to watch.
On pure cinematic grounds, the film is excellent. It has perfect story structure, humor at the right parts, seriousness when necessary. It has mystery, it has tension. It has a believable set of characters (although the group of Nazis living in New York including the Reverend Doctor Lionel Jones "D.D.S., D.D." are perhaps the funniest charicature of the stupidity and hypocrisy of prejudicial behavior.). It has a plot that is not too far out there considering the numerous other true stories involving spies in the propaganda ministry.
Nick Nolte (although this sounds the very cliché I wish to avoid) plays his part to such steely perfection that you cannot help but identify with him and his plight, but understand his actions. Sheryl Lee takes a break from her idiosyncratic routine of being the weirdo (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, John Carpenter's Vampires) and shines in what translates to a very large supporting role and John Goodman does a lot better in Mother Night than he has in any film in the past twenty years.
Yet something about this film annoys so many people that it was overlooked.
It came out in 1996, the year where The English Patient made its sweep at the Academy Awards. Mother Night is much better than Secrets & Lies, the shoo-in nomination, and at least as good as The English Patient, if not slightly better. I realize I have spoken treason at this point in time but am beyond caring.
The fact it is that Mother Night is one of a cadre of films that is swept under the rug due to the fact that it hits some cultural hot button to the average (slightly prejudicial) person. These films are so great that they deserve to be nominated if not win awards but instead become just your general word-of-mouth only films. In 1996, it was Mother Night, a film which dealt candidly with Nazism and poked fun (in a satirical way) at the ideals of that completely idiotic belief system. In 1997, it was Chasing Amy, which spoke openly about lesbianism, and modern sexuality and was fond of using profanity (but no more fond than half the films by Oliver Stone or other A-list directors.) In 1998, Lolita and Smoke Signals were swept under the rug. Smoke Signals was allowed to be shown in this country and dealt with father-son relationships and Indians without particular axes to grind. Lolita, closely based on the novel by Vladmir Nabaknov, was one of the few films that admits that not only are teens having sex, but that all people, no matter what their ages, are capable of understanding the power that it can hold over someone and capable of abusing it. The film was not allowed to be shown in the United States, and can only be found now on Showtime or in your local video store. It showed little nudity and contained no profanity.
Similarly, going back to Mother Night, this film uses no profanity that our society considers "serious", nor is it excessively violent or sexual. With the editing of a few frames, it would be suitable for network broadcast with no further complications.
All of these films deserved Best Picture nods (come on, did we really need to nominate The Full Monty, The Thin Red Line, or Elizabeth). All of these films did less than $20 million in the box office. All of these films are excellent.
The thing which all of these films share is that the general public trusted what they heard as spoken by a few conservatives who did not give these films a chance. Anyone who has seen any of the aforementioned movies knows that, although they hit on subjects that are touchy, they are careful not to tread on toes. They know that Mother Night is not, as some people have claimed, anti-Semitic, but instead anti-anti-Semitic. They know that Chasing Amy and Lolita are both films that, in the end, contain heavy morals. They know that Smoke Signals is not a political statement by not saying anything but instead a simple story about forgiving one's father.
I make a call to all movie patrons. To all people reading my message. It was said in Mother Night that National Socialism will exist as long as people are thinking with their guts and not with their minds. Although the Nazis in the film cheer at this, this is a backhanded insult towards them and a joke at their hypocrisy and stupidity. This same hypocrisy is shown when people prejudge a film based on profanity, or violence, or a political or sexual message that they do not yet know of. Stop following the people telling you that this film or that film is offensive. Stop following the politicians that say that movies and violence on television corrupts your mind. The true moral in Mother Night, in addition to not pretending to be something you're not, is that you have a mind, and that you should exercise it instead of going on the propaganda life spoon feeds you.
Run time: 114 mins
In Theaters: Friday 1st November 1996
Distributed by: New Line Home Entertainment
Production compaines: Fine Line Features
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 64%
Fresh: 16 Rotten: 9
IMDB: 7.2 / 10
Director: Keith Gordon
Screenwriter: Robert Weide
Starring: Nick Nolte as Howard Campbell, Sheryl Lee as Helga Noth / Resi Noth, Alan Arkin as George Kraft, Kirsten Dunst as Young Resi Noth, Bernard Behrens as Reverend Dr. Lionel Jones, Anna Berger as Epstein's Mother