When Graham Greene penned his novel “The Quiet American” in 1954, he was set on capturing a particular point in time in late, colonial era Indochina. These were the halcyon days, when white Westerners could come to the Orient to escape their pasts and reinvent themselves and land a beautiful bar girl half their age. Or the more ideologically inclined types could come with blueprints for keeping the region “free” and “democratic.”
Greene would certainly smile if he could see how little has changed 50 years later. His depiction of Thomas Fowler the world-weary British correspondent who takes no sides in the Vietnamese rebellion against French rule, preferring instead his whiskey and women is what Donald Rumsfeld would decry as the malaise of “old Europe,” decrepit and corrupt.
Then there’s the younger American, Alder Pyle, Fowler’s foil both romantically and existentially. Working for a suspiciously vague office of the U.S. government, Pyle literally brims with the conviction that American goodwill and common sense can sort out any political mess. This cocky confidence, untroubled by doubt, would not seem out of place in neoconservative circles today. (Especially the line where Pyle sneers that “The French aren’t going to stop the communists. They haven’t got the brains and they haven’t got the guts.”)
Director Philip Noyce (“Rabbit-Proof Fence”) has turned Greene’s novel into a very good-looking film, with cinematographer Christopher Doyle being a great choice to portray the seductive ambience of Asia as seen through a Western eye. But what Noyce may not have expected is how timely his film shot in 2001 and released in 2002 would become in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, where it seems every lesson of the Vietnam War needs to be relearned. (For once, Japanese cinema-goers can benefit from a delayed release.)
Even if that’s not the case, Greene had the good sense to frame his politics in the context of a love triangle, and Noyce has certainly worked that side of things. Michael Caine plays Fowler, a correspondent slowly going to seed in Saigon. It’s 1952, French control of their colony is gradually slipping in the face of guerrilla attacks by the Viet Minh, and Fowler can barely be bothered to cover it. His main interest is Phuong (Do Thi Haiyen, “Vertical Ray of the Sun”), a beautiful young “taxi dancer” who plies him with enough opium to make him forget his loveless marriage back in London (to a rigidly Catholic wife who will not grant him a divorce).
Fowler’s tranquility is shattered by the London desk, who plan to recall him unless he comes up with some hot stories, and the arrival of Pyle (Brendan Fraser), a newcomer to the U.S Embassy who latches on to Fowler and proceeds to make himself a major pain in the ass.
Noyce has made a wise decision to retain much of Greene’s prose in voiceover, thus we get to hear Fowler’s immortal description of Pyle as “a face with no history, and no problems. The face we all had once.” Fowler is troubled by the idea that Pyle may be connected to covert ops being run out of the embassy, but what finally makes him furious is how Pyle tries to steal his girl and rationalize it. Fowler, after all, is married, and Pyle thinks he can be Prince Charming and rescue Phuong from the bar-girl life. Their antagonism comes to a head when Fowler uncovers a story that Pyle would prefer to remain secret.
Playing opposite the twentysomething Dho Thi, 70-year-old Caine may be too old for the role, and the bedroom scenes seem more than a little uncomfortable. Caine does nail the part, though, and the added years actually serve to play up the jealousy he feels toward Pyle. But while a stage would allow his performance to stand on its own, the close-ups of cinema are unforgiving.
Fraser has been so good at comedy in past films, it’s easy to forget that he can really act; he brings the perfect blend of naivet, idealism and duplicity to Pyle, making the guy likable, but also a bit of a jerk. Dho Thi Haiyen remains one of modern cinema’s most beautiful actresses, in an old-school demure way, but mysterious allure is all she’s called upon to create here.
In the end, though, it’s the unintentional parallels with Iraq that give this so much bite. “Liberty?” Fowler asks Pyle. “You give them the freedom to vote and they’ll vote for Ho Chi Minh!” (Substitute Shia cleric Sistani for Ho.) The scene where a car bomb rips apart a Saigon street and a hotel filled with Westerners could have come off today’s news from Baghdad. Along with “The Fog of War,” also currently playing, “The Quiet American” shows that there is great reason to re-examine the lessons of the half-baked imperial experiments in Vietnam as history’s eating its tail.
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