Film Reviews: Wednesday, February 20, 2003
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Passionate and complex,The Quiet American is a cautionary tale for our time.


This story begins with a dead body clad in a white suit, floating in the Saigon River. From this image, The Quiet American plunges into a murky, morally ambiguous world of people trying to reconcile their personal actions with global agendas. Based on Graham Greene’s novel, it takes place in 1952, when Vietnam is still a French colony struggling for independence. The time frame is crucial — this movie’s a Cold War spy thriller rather than a Vietnam War film. Far from having an outdated sensibility, though, this film’s political narrative is incredibly timely for a nation on the brink of war in a distant land.

The corpse at the beginning of the movie belongs to a Bostonian named Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser). The story is narrated by his friend Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine), a London Times correspondent with a cushy job, an opium addiction, and a beautiful young Vietnamese girlfriend named Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen). His home, the city of Saigon, has become the sort of place where a grenade going off in a busy street in the middle of the day causes only a momentary disturbance. Pyle introduces himself to Fowler as an aid worker, importing medical supplies and treating children’s eye diseases. In reality, as Fowler eventually discovers, Pyle’s up to his elbows in the country’s civil war — while the French are doing the actual fighting, the Americans are pulling the strings. With the situation worsening daily, Fowler can’t maintain his journalistic detachment. His office assistant and information source (Tzi Ma) tells him, “Sooner or later, sir, one has to take sides if one is to remain human.”

Like the novel, the film isn’t just about a civil war. It’s also about two men whose relationship would be complicated regardless of place, and this human drama is absorbing even for viewers who don’t like the film’s critique of American foreign policy. Pyle is in love with Phuong and can offer her much more than Fowler, who can’t marry her because his estranged Catholic wife in England won’t give him a divorce. Despite all the differences between them, the two men maintain a tense friendship until the truth about Pyle’s activities comes out. The complexities continue beyond the grave, as Fowler is revealed to know more about Pyle’s death than he initially says.

The romantic triangle isn’t as good as it could be because, as in the novel, Phuong never comes off as more than an abstraction (Do Thi Hai Yen is too wan a presence). Still, Caine and Fraser do excellent work in conveying the different layers of a relationship that’s constantly shifting from warm camaraderie to prickly banter to outright confrontation. Fraser strikes exactly the right note as a guy whose focus on the big picture blinds him to everything else. Pyle’s idealism insulates him from the consequences of his actions, so when his anti-Communist allies start killing innocent people, he doesn’t feel too bad about it. Somehow, Fraser makes Pyle sympathetic and even tragic.

The movie, though, rightly belongs to Caine’s searing performance as a jaded professional who feels his few comforts in life slipping away from him. (“I know I’m not essential to Phuong,” says Fowler in a reflective moment. “But if I lost her, it would be the beginning of death.”) Much has been written about Jack Nicholson’s similarly Oscar-nominated turn as an aging Everyman in About Schmidt, but Caine’s Fowler is the sharper, more active, more compelling figure. His desperate clinging to what he has left and his growing awareness of the global forces at work around him are the qualities that stay with you long after the movie’s over.

Australian filmmaker Phillip Noyce brings the same taut, muscular style to the material that he did to Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. An important difference is the Southeast Asian atmosphere, captured with such fidelity that you can feel the humidity. Fellow Aussie cinematographer Christopher Doyle knows the terrain, having cut his teeth working for China’s greatest filmmakers, and he’s equally at home amid the lantern-lit glamour of a swanky nightclub or the stark daylight of a massacred village. He puts a gray, Goya-esque light on the lifeless Pyle’s face at the beginning of the film, and makes unforgettable use of stripes of white light at the end, during Pyle’s panicked dash down an alleyway as he futilely tries to escape his doom.

The obvious thread linking The Quiet American and Noyce’s other film this year, Rabbit-Proof Fence, is the danger of governments encroaching on poorly understood foreign cultures. Pyle’s assertion that, “In the long run, I’m saving lives,” is echoed by Kenneth Branagh’s colonial protector in Rabbit-Proof Fence as he tells the press, “The native does not know what we are trying to do for him.” Both interventions lead to unintended consequences and needless suffering, for the invaders as well as the invaded. This movie may be anti-American, but in its compassion, acuity, and dramatic power, it cries out to be heard by us Statesiders.

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