The Quiet American (2002)

Directed by Philip Noyce
Cast: Michael Caine, Brendan Fraser, Do Thi Hai Yen
Rated: R Length: 118 minutes

The film opens with a shot of boats on Saigon River in the evening. The river seemed impossibly serene until I noticed lights flashing in the distance, beyond the city. All of a sudden, I no longer noticed the river, or the boats, or the city but found myself focusing on the lights in the distance. They were flashing and once in a while streaked across the evening sky. Far in the distance, the French-Indochina war was raging. Yet it was so simple to keep my myopic view of the river, to forget that conflict was on the horizon.

The Quiet American, set in the 1950s in Indochina (now Vietnam), stars Michael Caine as British journalist Thomas Fowler who shares my myopic view. In his time covering the conflict between the French and the communists from Saigon Fowler has grown fond of his life there and in the company of his opium and his woman finds it easy to remain uninvolved. The woman he loves is Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen) and in her he has invested his ego. As do most men, he sees his worth in her need for him. Phuong used to be a dancer, and though she seems to have genuine affection for him, her need for him arises from desperate circumstances.
Fowler meets a bright and idealistic young American, Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser) who says he has come to provide medical aid where possible. Pyle is the titular quiet American, and we soon suspect that he may have reasons to be quiet. Problems arise when the London Times call Fowler back for his inactivity. Fowler realizes that his world is coming apart- he would have to leave his beloved Phuong and return to an unhappy marriage in London. ‘I thought you liked London,’ Phuong asks him. ‘I like it just where it is,’ he replies. Jumpstarted in to action, Fowler sets out to the north with French troops in search of a story. The story he finds is that there is a third force rising in Vietnam led by self-appointed General Thè against both the communists and the French.

Another story he discovers is that Pyle has fallen for Phuong and in a scene of unabashed, romantic idealism he proposes to Phuong in front of Fowler. Brendan Fraser offers a performance that departs from his usual nitwit (but adored) persona, that provides a strongly American wide-eyed, out-to-set-the-world-right counterpart to Caine’s cynical, world-weary Fowler.

While he continues his investigation on the third front, his romantic life comes crashing down around him. The discovery of a careless lie of his sends Phuong in to the arms of the American Pyle and he is consumed with grief. Still, the magnitude and pertinence of the story he was investigating keeps him going and leads him to suspect the Americans of involvement in the third front. In a shrewdly crafted climax, we see characters moving towards inevitable inhumane actions that their world-views allow them to justify. ‘Sooner or later, Mr. Fowler, one has to take sides if one is to stay human.’ So says Fowler’s assistant Hinh, and such is the fate of the two main characters of the film.

Michael Caine, who was nominated for an Oscar for this performance, is as always a delight to watch. The weight and wisdom he brings to Thomas Fowler in his narrative, delivered in retrospect, is the pulse of the film. In his moments of confidence, we believe that he is a sure-footed Brit; but beneath the surface, his vulnerabilities about his love, about his age and towards the end, about the meaning of the conflict in Vietnam are lurking.

What is remarkable about this story is that the original novel by Graham Greene was written before American involvement in Vietnam officially began. In that sense, it is supremely prophetic. The movie was set to be released towards the end of 2001, but after the tragic events of 9/11 it was postponed for its ‘anti-American’ sentiment. It would be unfortunate if people choose not to watch this movie for these reasons, as they would be depriving themselves of a confident and thought-provoking film. There is never a right time to release such a film for people who hold the questioning of one’s government as unpatriotic. In the same breath I would say that a film like this will always seem current- as relevant today as the time it was written, maybe even more so.

Director Phillip Noyce has made two films back to back that speak of periods in history their respective countries are not proud of. Rabbit-Proof Fence is about the shameful treatment of aborigines in Australia until not too long ago. In both films, Noyce has broken out of the ranks of the Hollywood clones and found a voice. While his previous big-budgeted ventures (the Jack Ryan films Clear and Present Danger and Patriot Games) were creditable, they will never have the long-term impact on the minds of the viewers that these will achieve. He is confident of the story he wants to tell and of the abilities of his actors.
So remarkably are the two threads of this story woven together that there are times when I wonder if the political intrigue serves as a backdrop to the love triangle or if it is the other way around. Then again, maybe they are both one and the same, with each character serving as a metaphor for the country they represent- Fowler, the old imperialist, and Pyle, the end-justifies-the-means young American, both fighting over the Vietnamese Phuong, who seems to have no say in her future. This is handled with kid-gloves in a scene where Phuong tells Fowler of her friend who was to leave with her French boyfriend, but was cruelly abandoned at the airport. Will the British and the American do the same?

Notes:
– The original 1958 film of The Quiet American turned Greene’s novel into an anti-communist story from its original cynical (and prophetic) view of the situation in Indochina.
– A rare Hollywood film to be shot mainly in Vietnam. Surprisingly, most Vietnam war movies are shot in other Asian countries such as the Philippines, or even worse, the United States.

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