It's Germany, 1938, and playwright Howard W. Campbell Jr. (Nick Nolte) is faced with a dilemma: if he agrees to become an American spy posing as a Nazi sympathiser, sending vital coded messages to the US via anti-Semitic radio broadcasts, then his countrymen will mistake his heroism for the worst kind of treachery.
Normally films this good are trumpeted to the heavens. But then Mother Night is by no means a typical movie. It mixes complex ideological discourse with career-best performances, and the saddened irony of Kurt Vonnegut with the terrifying reality of Hitler's Germany. In other words, it's a hard sell, but a hell of a rewarding movie. Vonnegut himself - upon whose novel it's based - puts in a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance, offering a stamp of approval for what is an extremely successful attempt at taking a notably difficult novel to the screen.
Nolte is electrifying as Howard Campbell, an American journalist living in Germany, who finds himself caught up in a web of deception and loss of identity. The mysterious G-man recruits him to help spy against the Nazis - Campbell delivers coded pro-Nazi broadcasts that help the Allies by advocating Hitler. Somewhere along the way, the lines become blurred, a hero becomes a villain and a man loses his life.
Gordon, whose previous effort A Midnight Clear was as marginalised as this is almost bound to be, is obviously a filmmaker of considerable talent. Here he not only elicits sterling work from the likes of Arkin, Kirsten Dunst and Lee (doing another Laura Palmeresque double-up), but drags a career-best performance out of Nolte, who is mesmeric, devastating and ultimately devastated as a man caught between unacknowledged heroism and a life destroyed.
Mother Night is brave, uncompromising, insightful and delicately moving. A movie that offers no easy rewards, this is still a deeply satisfying experience.