The writer Graham Greene (1904-1991) worked for British intelligence during World War II which presumably gave him exposure to espionage and other undercover sorts of activities in which governments, particularly governments at war, engage. Greene’s religious convictions (he converted to Catholicism) also were the grounding for a strong sense of morality. His writing reflects both of these aspects of his background, often taking the form of adventure stories in which well-developed characters confront issues of right and wrong, with all the shadings in between.
The Quiet American, very much in the Greene mold, takes place in an exotic, colonial locale (Viet Nam) and its hero, Thomas Fowler, has the decadent, disaffected attitude that infects Greene’s expatriates. In Phillip Noyce’s new film based on the novel, Michael Caine plays Fowler and delivers a definitive performance in the role. Fowler is a British correspondent, getting by doing barely enough work to keep his post, smoking opium, and maintaining an emotional distance from the events around him, with the exception of his Vietnamese mistress, the beautiful Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen) with whom he is very much in love. But Fowler has a wife back home who, as a Catholic, will not give him a divorce. Phuong’s sister worries about the insecure nature of her attachment.
Enter a young American, Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), sporting a crew cut, nerdy glasses, and a straight arrow sort of awkwardness. Pyle claims to be on a medical aid mission for the United States government, but as they become friends Fowler realizes that Pyle’s up to something more. To further complicate matters, Pyle falls in love with Phoung, too.
These two contrasting characters schematically fall into place as the cynical Old World colonialist and the idealistic, but naive, American, indulging in the new colonialism–butting into the business of other sovereign states out of motivations of perceived national self-interest. Their competition for Phuong is a microcosm of their competing ideals and perceptions of morality about Viet Nam itself.
Noyce’s script leans somewhat on voiceovers, but nonetheless is cogent and delivers the story with a strong narrative drive. Using saturated colors and dark lighting, he also catches the hot and humid atmosphere of the country, a genuine sense not only of a geographical place, but also of a place on the verge of anarchy. The potential for blatant polemic is always present in a film such as this one; Noyce intelligently keeps the political verbalizingto a minimum and lets the events define the themes.
The primary weakness, which is not fatal to the film, but keeps it from being a much stronger work, is in the performance of Brendan Fraser. He doesn’t invest the character with the kind of sharp intelligence that such an operative would be expected to have. Nor is his romantic interest in Phuong convincing for a moment; he talks it, but he doesn’t exhibit the passion to which his words profess. The result is that protagonist and antagonist are unevenly matched and the resulting imbalance reduces the effectiveness of the whole.
The Quiet American was ready for release at about the time of the 9/11 attacks. Mirmax made the decision to postpone its release in view of the sensitivity of the film’s themes, which put American intervention in Viet Nam in a negative light. A delay is understandable, but with better than a year gone by and general release planned for sometime in 2003, Miramax seems to be either milking the issue for publicity (they did screen it in New York and Los Angeles to qualify for Academy awards) or, even worse, caving in to national pressures set by the tone of the current administration which characterizes any criticism of the government’s actions as unpatriotic and interfering with anti-terrorist efforts.
The Quiet American is surely critical of United States actions in Viet Nam, especially the sort of covert activity to which the public isn’t privy. In retrospect, few would argue that our involvement there was anything but a major failing of American foreign policy. Instead of silencing the lessons of the not-so-distant past, the issues raised by The Quiet American are important to have as part of any debate as to what future interventions the U.S. undertakes. To avoid such issues is to capitulate to a government that currently seeks ever greater powers and fewer citizen protections than at any time in American history.
In The Quiet American Miramax has an intelligent, high quality film that is timely and pertinent to today’s headlines. Now they need the courage to put it before the public.