The Quiet American
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   D A V I D   N G

First published in 1955, Graham Greene's novel The Quiet American sounded a prescient alarm against the United States' growing involvement in Southeast Asia, decrying American "good intentions" as naïve blunder at best and murderous intervention at worst. Nearly fifty years later, a new film adaptation is hitting theaters just as the prospect of a new American offensive, the possible war with Iraq, looms on the horizon. If Greene's novel was a withering portrayal of American ignorance abroad, the movie is content to conjure a sense of passive despair in the form of Thomas Fowler, a life-weary war reporter played by Michael Caine. This British journalist is no knee-jerk anti-American. Tired of his own cynicism, he sees the world, and Americans especially, with what Greene describes as the "unreliable clarity" of an opium dream.

Fowler inhabits a colonial Indochina on the brink of upheaval. Dien Bien Phu (the site of the French defeat) is only two years away, and the American military presence -- mostly ill-concealed intelligence officers and their local drones -- is already more than palpable. As envisioned by director Phillip Noyce, the capital Saigon appears as a gauzy nexus of nationalist intrigue and menopausal imperialism -- a place where the streets still have French names but everyone speaks English, where bombs go off with mind-numbing randomness and heart-stopping frequency. The Quiet American was filmed on location in Vietnam, and though the movie boasts impressive historical re-creation (photographed by Christopher Doyle with a refreshing absence of postcard beauty), the story itself seems to unfold almost entirely out of time -- stuck, as it were, in the hours between dusk and dawn. The sun, it seems, is always setting on this revolving empire. The Vietnamese people, extras in their own country, are continually putting one foreign ruler out to pasture while prepping themselves for another invading hoard.

The Quiet American begins, appropriately enough, at a mutual terminus of lives lived and days wasted. The eponymous American, an economic aid worker named Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), is discovered murdered; Caine's Fowler is the prime suspect. The screenplay (by Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan) is faithful to the novel, fashioning Fowler's extended flashback as a fractal mindwalk. A senior war correspondent for a British newspaper, Fowler fills his long days with opium pipes and rote dispatches: "I wrote what I saw. I took no action -- even an opinion is a kind of action." Caine's performance, his first lead role in a decade, is an Oscar gift basket of aged humility and seasoned wisdom. His narration gently sedates as it relates the coldest of information. Pyle, he suspects, is up to something no good. And sure enough, in the middle of an artillery skirmish in remote Phat Diem, Pyle announces his designs on Fowler's mistress, a local tiger blossom named Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen).

Its humid love triangle thus established, The Quiet American dares to treat the resulting tug of war with the dry formality of a United Nations Security Council showdown. Back in Saigon, Fowler and Pyle negotiate for Phuong's affection, deploying diplomatic doublespeak in a futile attempt to achieve romantic détente. For her part, Phuong is content to say little and look pretty. This China doll is little more than property to be seized and jealously patrolled; and yet, she possesses an ineffable resilience that foretells decades of fruitless warfare. Fraser, bloated and stiff, looks more simian than he did in George of the Jungle. His freshman diplomat is the Ugly American writ large: thuggishly single-minded, deaf to cultural nuance (he carries a textbook, The Role of the West, wherever he goes), and hopelessly, if not dangerously, possessed by the belief that Phuong -- and by extension, Indochina -- needs protection.

Shelved by a tremulous Miramax post-9/11, The Quiet American is only now seeing the light of day thanks to the critical groundswell surrounding Caine's performance. (The movie had a two-week Oscar-qualifying run in late November.) That the film has lost little of its potency testifies to the sturdiness of Greene's archetypes: Brendan Fraser's Pyle is the embodiment of what Greene would eventually come to call "the barbarism of the western world." In the novel, Pyle's unmasking as a CIA operative is a forgone conclusion, but the movie treats it with the burdensome weight of a Biblical betrayal. Judas, Greene might have conceded, was the first American. Pyle masterminds the movie's climatic explosion, a staged car bombing in Saigon's crowded Place Garnier. Based on an actual incident in which the American government employed terrorist techniques to frame the communist Vietminh, the explosion only succeeds in producing civilian casualties. The sight of innocent victims -- a decapitated baby among them -- is enough to give Fraser's besmirched Eagle Scout ample pause.

The politically agnostic Fowler is hardly a more flattering portrait. Like Greene's other anti-heroes, particularly Major Calloway from The Third Man, Fowler is a model of European inaction, observing the world so that he may avoid participating in it. "I believe what I report," he says at one point, and it's the closest he comes to an admission of faith. Though he lives with Phuong, Fowler has a wife back in England whom he hasn't seen in years. A failed attempt to secure a divorce (and its subsequent cover-up) propels a hurt Phuong into Pyle's gorilla embrace, sending Fowler over the brink. Played with upper-class crust by Michael Redgrave in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's lauded 1958 screen version, Fowler is much less refined under Caine's revisionist gaze -- a self-medicating, working-class rogue whose novocained neurons are bristling back to life. Whether his third-act doublecross is motivated by jealous love or a sudden surge of moral probity is beside the point. Noyce preserves the hazy atmospherics of the novel's final pages, embalming Fowler's ambiguity in layer upon layer of nighttime shadow.

In his New Yorker review, the critic A.J. Liebling called Greene's novel a "nasty little plastic bomb." He added: "There is a difference, after all, between calling your over-successful ally a silly ass and accusing him of murder." Noyce's movie preempts such criticism by transmuting much of the novel's invective into an elegy for the living dead. At its most eloquent, The Quiet American evokes a lost Saigon whose ethnic stew has boiled down to its basic ingredients: the Vietnamese and the rest. Indeed, as the concluding montage of newspaper headlines suggests, Fowler will be condemned to haunt this land for decades to come. The journalists, he ultimately learns, end up staying the longest.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: Miramax
Movie Web site: The Quiet American



Photo credits: © 2002 Miramax Film Corp. All rights reserved.