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.

Today in Movie History: January 31

It’s another quiet day today, with just two notable features to discuss. We’ll start with the freaky one: Ringu, the film which, along with The Grudge, set the pace for the J-horror movement of the late 1990s. Gore Verbinski remade it as the smash hit The Ring, but the original is far more unsettling. It opened in Japan today in 1998.

On a lighter note, there’s Down and Out in Beverly Hills: the story of a dysfunctional rich family whose lives get turned upside down when they take in a homeless man after he tries to drown himself in their pool, became a huge hit for the then-nascent Touchstone Pictures. Every frame screams 1980s, but if you can get past that, it remains a delight. It opened today in 1986.

Today in Movie History: December 8

We’re going to start with Ang Lee, the only non-white to win more than one Best Director Oscar and whose vision continues to expand with every film he makes. Among his very best is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a love letter to the wuxia films of his youth that manages to elevate the genre to masterpiece status. A sumptuous adventure, a tragic love story and an ode to the ways that the movies can move us, you won’t see a better kung fu movie ever. Crouching Tiger arrived on U.S. screens today in 2000.

Staying in the realm of foreign language films, we find Costa-Gavras’s Z, a semi-satirical political thriller loosely based on the real-life assassination of Greek politician Grigoris Labrakis. Among its other achievements, it was the first movie to be nominated for both Best Foreign Language Film and Best Picture. (A number of others have come along since then… including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.) Z opened today in 1969.

Closer to home, there’s On the Town, based on the successful stage musical about a trio of sailors in New York on shore leave. Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra star as two of the three (Broadway actor Jules Munshin served as their third musketeer). Kelly himself directed the dance sequences, and with music by Leonard Bernstein, among others, it’s a fine treat from a day when musicals were Hollywood’s bread and butter. It opened today in 1949.

For old-school movie stars at the top of their game, check out Paul Newman putting the justice system on trial in The Verdict. It marks another high point in his amazing career — playing a washed-up lawyer given a shot at redemption by a singular case — and under the sharp direction of Sidney Lumet, earned him an Academy Award nomination in the process. (He lost to Ben Kingsley in Gandhi, and we’re not too bent out of shape by that one.) It opened 35 years ago today in 1982.

Newman was an established legend by the time he made The Verdict. Another big star, Eddie Murphy, hadn’t even made a motion picture before appearing in 48 HRS, which partnered him with Nick Nolte solely on the strength of his phenomenal presence of Saturday Night Live. The move was a huge smash, establishing the parameters of the buddy-cop movie and turning Murphy into a superstar almost overnight. It also opened 35 years ago today in 1982.

Finally, today saw the release of the underrated WWII romp Force 10 from Navarone, featuring Robert Shaw, Carl Weathers and a post-Han, pre-Indy Harrison Ford kicking some Nazi ass. It’s pulp, to be sure, but certainly fun pulp… and Shaw’s final speech is not to be missed. (Plus, all the cool kids are punching Nazis these days.) Force 10 opened today in 1979.