“”We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” According to Kurt Vonnegut, this is the moral to his story and man, is it a story. I’m going to talk about the movie version which does the book all the justice in the world and seriously, I can’t recommend this movie enough. It is a classic. It often is overlooked but get yourself a copy and watch it. This gets the biggest rating possible from me.
The movie stars Nick Nolte (who got an Oscar nomination for his leading role) and John Goodman, Alan Arkin, Sheryl Lee (Twin Peaks, Winter’s Bone), and Kirsten Dunst. The plot seems simple, a top Nazi propagandist is really an American spy. The twist is that no one knows it but one guy and after the war the American government lets him escape but leaves him on his own to face what may come. What comes to the main character Howard J. Campbell Jr.’s way is a day of reckoning. The story is Campbell’s fictional memoirs written in an Israeli prison cell. How he gets there gives any reader/viewer pause. Vonnegut says this is the only one of his stories he knew the moral to and that theme runs throughout this work.
Vonnegut knew about war. He was a soldier in WWII, was a POW, and survived the firebombing of Dresden. His family had German roots. His other works are classics and if you have never touched one of his books, I encourage you to do so. Also see this movie.
Nolte gives what could very well be his best performance ever in this movie and that says a lot. He is totally believable as a man in hiding who is conflicted with himself and by that I mean his soul. Sheryl Lee is ever bit as good in this movie. She actually plays two roles and makes the switch very convincingly. Nolte brings you along, you get caught in his emotional battles, and then you find yourself on the wire, you know, that one which often teeters over the gulf of right and wrong. I think this is most poignant when Nolte’s character turns to a family that was in Auschwitz for help. The family itself is divided, conflicted, and their reactions may surprise you. When you finish this story, you may find yourself asking if you weren’t just pretending to be on the wire all along, for like Howard Campbell, how we delude ourselves will seal our fate.
There are numerous plot twists in this story and I won’t spoil them for you. This is as much a psychological thriller as anything else. Yet, by the same token, Vonnegut is known for embracing the absurd and he does so at points in this story. In doing so, he puts us face to face with our own moral questions and ask, what are we pretending to be?
There are some great quotes throughout this story. There is a scene where Campbell (Nolte) just stops on a sidewalk. As he puts it for no other reason than he had no direction to move in and he checklists different emotions he’d learned to handle over the years. A philosophy class could be taught on that scene alone. But don’t let me say that and you be fooled. This is not a stale or stagnant movie by any means. It is a definite ride so pop plenty of popcorn ahead of time.