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The Quiet American   A

Miramax Films

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Phillip Noyce
Writers: Christopher Hampton, Robert Schenkkan (based on the novel by Graham Greene)
Cast: Michael Caine, Brendan Fraser, Do Thi Hai Yen, Rade Serbedzija, Tzi Ma, Robert Stanton, Holmes Osborne.

Review by Rob Vaux

It's been far too long since a film like The Quiet American graced our screens. Based on a novel by Graham Greene, it appears at once timely and retro, old-fashioned cynicism mixed with post-9/11 acrimony. Greene's work has seen mixed results on-screen, but when it fires on all cylinders, it's truly a thing of beauty. The author understood the world's complexities as only a Briton in the twilight of the Empire could. It's hard to look at his English protagonists (world-weary souls who muddle along as best they can) or their American foils (charming cads who think they have it all figured out) without seeing the slow transfer of power that marked the two nations' progress through the twentieth century. "You want it?" John Bull asks the brash colonial. "Be my guest; it's more of a handful than you think."

The Quiet American, Greene's eerily prescient examination of America's first faltering steps into Vietnam, has a pair of such figures in an element uniquely suited to them. On the one hand, we have Thomas Fowler, a London news reporter who has carved an agreeable niche for himself in French-occupied Indochina. On the other, there's Alden Pyle, the fresh-faced title character ostensibly in the region as part of a medical study. They face a country on the verge of devastating change -- two years from Dienbienphu, a decade from the Gulf of Tonkin -- each viewing it with remarkably different eyes. Not only does Phillip Noyce's adaptation expertly convey the essence of the novel (far more than the limp 1958 version), but raises the material beyond specific time and place. Filmed on location in Saigon, it paints a picture of Vietnam rarely seen in U.S. films: a tranquil, seductive land whose political turmoil has only begun to mar its beauty.

We first meet Fowler (Michael Caine) in the police office to identify a body. He greets the task with the same passive acceptance he treats every aspect of his life. His wife back home refuses to grant him a divorce, despite the fact that they clearly no longer have anything in common. The newspaper threatens to pull his funding, and the French foothold in the region grows more precarious by the minute. The only real joy in his life comes from Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen), his beautiful young mistress to whom he is utterly devoted. With her by his side, he remains content, if not happy, with his life in the region. And then comes Pyle (Brendan Fraser): bright, young, and full of energy, with overt (though honorable) designs on Fowler's girl. Though the two men strike up a grudging friendship, Pyle's open affection becomes a bone of contention, disrupting Fowler's well-practiced ennui. The American's position in Vietnam is troubling as well; for a humble philanthropist, he ends up in more than his share of ugly situations. With guerrilla attacks on the rise and bombings reaching as far as Saigon, his nice-guy routine seems a little too sincere to be believed.

Since his promising early films, Noyce has wandered in the desert of competent-but-forgettable Hollywood product. The Quiet American gives him a chance to flex some long-neglected muscles and invest the drama with genuine meaning. Like Greene, he conceals deep complexities beneath a simple facade: a world that defies the well-meaning do-gooder's moral absolution. The script expertly blends the love triangle with a first-rate political thriller, extrapolating the interpersonal relations to echo through the larger conflict surrounding them. Noyce has enough big studio flair to get our attention, but avoids easy gratification in favor of real engagement with Greene's acerbic philosophy. It sees the darkness in men like Pyle, darkness made all the more acute by their sincere desire to do the right thing. The Quiet American subtly decries such hubris, condemning it without losing the disaffected mindset of its original author.

It also works wonders with the two leads. I've been unimpressed with Caine's recent work, but his performance here is an absolute mindblower, invoking the same sort of daring that made him a star in the first place. He tinges Fowler's well-worn survivor with tattered shreds of morality, suggesting a man who's seen the worst and hasn't quite been extinguished by it. Fraser is effective as well, pulling a calculated turn on his "sweet lug" persona that catches us off-guard. Both men work very well together, and maintain good chemistry with Yen, who exudes mystery without succumbing to the Flower of the Orient cliché with which her character flirts.

The Quiet American strikes hardest, however, when it reminds you how pertinent its dynamics remain. Fifty years after the fact, the world's political situation seems little different, and Noyce brings out the allegory with remarkable skill. Though a superfluous closing sequence gilds the lily, the point is sharp and inescapable. Pyle's rhetoric, half a century old, still appears every day on CNN: Good vs. evil; right vs. wrong; the United States determined to show the rest of the world the way. And The Quiet American, like its protagonist, is softly outraged by the hubris of it all.

Review published 01.17.2003.

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