by Keith Gordon
I was a fan of Kurt Vonnegut from the time my cousin left a copy of Cat's Cradle in my room one summer. I picked it up and read it guiltily, with the impression that it was somehow a dirty book I shouldn't be reading. I loved it (I recently reread it and was amazed at how much I missed the first few times -- truly a sign of great literature) and started to read all of his books I could get my hands on.
Vonnegut was ill-served by movies, however. There was a very nice version of Slaughterhouse Five (which I may talk about here one of these days), but, generally, dramatized versions of his works were few, and came and went without attracting much notice. A version of Cat's Cradle was in development for years with nothing coming of it.
Mother Night was one of my favorite Vonnegut novels (and one of his most underrated). It was perhaps his most realistic, the story of Howard Campbell (Nick Nolte), an American caught in Nazi Germany who becomes a Nazi propagandist on the behest of a mysterious US spy (John Goodman). While broadcasting, he is told to insert phrases, pauses, and sneezes that are really coded messages to the underground.
Vonnegut once called it his only novel with a moral: you must be careful what you pretend to be because in the end you are who you're pretending to be.
This is one of Nick Nolte's best roles. He's perfect as the weary Campbell, a hunted criminal after the war is over, hiding out in New York and trying to make sense of the universe.
The movie follows the book pretty closely, both in plot and spirit. Vonnegut even makes an appearance -- a cameo as a man walking down the street. If you like Vonnegut at all, it's a film worth seeking out.
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