Movies for the Resistance: Mother Night

(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)

Starring: Nick Nolte, Sheryl Lee, John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Kirsten Dunst and David Strathairn
Directed by: Keith Gordon
Running time: 114 minutes
Rating: R
Year of release: 1996

If you liked Trump’s speech last night, congratulations. So did David Duke and Richard Spencer. It further cemented not only our mad king’s hateful nature, but the terrifying fact that Republicans have gone all in on him. Poll after poll shows the GOP faithful standing by their man… and almost everyone else filled with utter disgust. Mueller’s investigation took another turn with last week’s New York Times bombshell about an attempt to fire him last June, and Trump’s flying monkeys have responded with equal force: denying, evading and flat-out projecting an increasing mountain of incriminating behavior onto the president’s political foes. Will they stand by while Trump tries to end the Russia investigation? Will they continue to destroy the rule of law while claiming to protect it?

That’s what scares me the most these days: the ease and speed with which people can defend the indefensible. And I think about stories we’ve heard throughout this sick farce of a presidency: about how Kelly is going to be the grown-up in the room, and Congress is going to keep 45 on a tight leash, and some other political faction is somehow going to raise their hands and put a stop to all of this. Mitt Romney provides the faintest flicker of hope on that front, but beyond that, the right seems quite happy to bend their knee to the whims of Trump.

Which brings us to the notion of rationalization. How much evil can someone excuse in the name of doing good? How much does false equivalency and bigger-picture explanations justify acts of cowardice so extreme? How powerful does the stench need to rise before you realize the extent of the rot?

Kurt Vonnegut found an answer with his satirical novel Mother Night, which director Keith Gordon brought to impressive life in 1996. It posits a fictional American playwright, Howard Campbell (Nick Nolte), living in Berlin in the 1930s who joins the Nazi propaganda machine as a radio host. He spews anti-Semitic bile over the air waves: urging Allied soldiers to desert and citing grotesque Jewish stereotypes as the secret conspirators behind the war. He’s the most hateful American turncoat since Benedict Arnold… or so everyone believes. He himself thinks he’s performing much different work: delivering coded information to the Allies through his broadcasts as a highly placed secret agent.

The duality haunts him throughout the war and into a purgatorial life beyond it: hidden in a crappy New York apartment under an assumed identity and no longer bothering to hide his name anymore. Whose side did he really serve? His Nazi father-in-law (Norman Rodway) credits him as the final reason he joined the Party, and argues that he never could have damaged the Reich’s cause as a spy as much as he aided it as a propagandist. His broadcasts are shocking in their hate and dementia (intended to fool those around him, perhaps, but JESUS man…).

Not that there’s much surface evidence to suggest he actually worked for the Allies. He has just one contact (John Goodman), whom he sees maybe three times in the course of his life. He has no idea what kinds of information he delivers in his speeches – it’s all coded before he broadcasts it – meaning he has only his contact’s word that he actually works for the right side. (In one particularly Vonnegut-type twist, he reads a coded message about the death of his own wife… several days before he himself is told.)

Said wife (Sheryl Lee) serves as the anchor to his passions, and his reason for living. But she too, has secrets to keep, as do seemingly innocent friends and acquaintances who don’t reveal their true intentions. He struggles through in part because he doesn’t seem to have any beliefs of his own: a self-professed neutral who can be stirred to both great good and great evil only because someone else suggests it. That proves his salvation for a time, at least as far as living with himself goes. But sooner or later the pipe needs to be paid. Eventually, he becomes completely unmoored from any perspective on anything: literally freezing on the street for hours because he has nowhere to go. Did he do any good with his life? Does it make up for the evil he contributed as a result? He tells himself stories to sleep at night – to silence his father-in-law’s voice echoing in his head – but in the end, he can’t hide from what he’s done.

Even if it was in the name of something better.

Even he if helped his country in the process.

Campbell is further inoculated from the consequences of his actions because he doesn’t fight. He spews lies and verbal monstrosities over the airwaves instead, emulating poisoned tongues like Lord Haw Haw and Tokyo Rose. This matches the work of right-wing media machines like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News: happily spreading toxic bullshit with only the barest pretense of legitimacy. They know their listeners will buy it. They know it’s an easy sale. And Trump watches what they say and parrots it back, and the Republican rank-and-file go along with his insanity because Tax Cuts, and thus do we slide ever closer to the abyss.

Howard knew the cost. It eats him up as the film progresses until he’s left a suicidal shell rotting in an Israeli prison. He possesses enough insight to loathe himself, and to understand that he probably deserves his fate. I wonder how many of Trump’s flying monkeys will come to such conclusions, now or in the future. I wonder where they see themselves when and if this all ends. Will they recant, if only to themselves? Or will they lament the fall of some grand ideal that they believe Trump embodied? Will they maintain that he made America great again in the face of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary? Or will they someday look the Gorgon in the face and acknowledge their part in this madness?

Mother Night has an answer. And they’re not gonna like it at all.

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