"The Quiet American"

"The Quiet American"

I am, at best, only sparsely familiar with the work of Brendan Fraser, so I was looking forward to seeing him in The Quiet American (2002). I was also looking forward to seeing him star alongside the great Michael Caine (especially because I’ve just finished reading Caine’s autobiography, The Elephant To Hollywood, which I bought as a Christmas present for my dad). So yes, I had plenty to look forward to in The Quiet American, but that was no preparation for how genuinely good a movie it is. It is thought-provoking and haunting, beautiful and unsettling. Based on Graham Greene’s 1955 novel, it brings together love, idealism and espionage under the clouds of what would be a bloody, bitter war.
Told almost entirely in flashback, Thomas Fowler (Caine), a reporter for the London Times in French Indochina, meets Alden Pyle, an American aid worker. Fowler is in his 50s, and jaded about the conflict that ravages what is now Vietnam (“I offer no point of view, I take no action, I don’t get involved”). Pyle, on the other hand, is younger, and empathizes with the plight of the Vietnamese people, caught between the waning French colonial empire and the hard-line communists from the north. What they have in common is their love for the beautiful Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen), Fowler’s mistress. She is all Fowler has to look forward to in life; the younger, romantic Pyle identifies saving her with saving Vietnam.

Pyle tries to impress upon Fowler the necessity for another player to enter French Indochina, one that offers the stability of the French rule, but respects the traditions and culture of the Vietnamese. Fowler shrugs it off: he’s heard it all before, from one self-made general to another. But change is in the air; the new General Thé (Quang Hai) is surprisingly well-connected, with a larger (and more unscrupulous) army than anyone suspected. A terrorist bombing in Saigon kills dozens of innocent people, and a shaken Fowler begins to put the pieces together. How could General Thé wield such influence in such a short span of time? What is diolacton? How did he, Fowler, and Pyle become such good friends, despite both vying for Phuong’s affection? And how much longer can he, Fowler, keep his hands clean as Vietnam spirals into bloodshed and war?

Phillip Noyce recreates some very disparate elements in The Quiet American - Caine’s weary pedigree, Fraser’s bashful naivete and Hai Yen’s crystalline beauty, all under the cloud of the impending Vietnam War - and presents a motion picture adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel as intoxicating and beguiling as the opium dens that dotted Saigon. I have never read Greene’s bestseller, but if Noyce’s film is as faithful to the book as they say it is, then not only do I want to read it, but I am doubly impressed with what Noyce has achieved. Little moments, like Phuong and Fowler talking in bed, or Fowler and Pyle trapped in a guard tower, make a very personal and intimate story from a much larger picture: the geopolitical restructuring of Southeast Asia, the decline of colonialism, and the growing winds of the Cold War. That Noyce manages to capture both sides of the coin, a simple love triangle and the bubbling cauldron it takes place in, is what makes The Quiet American such a brilliant film.

Then there’s the acting. Caine, as is his wont, brings decades of experience and brilliance to the character of Thomas Fowler, a man who’s seen it all and believes in only a Vietnamese girl, three decades his junior. Fraser, representing all of America in French Indochina, is a pleasant revelation as Alden Pyle, shy and respectful around Fowler and Phuong, determined and forceful on the topic of saving Vietnam. My only complaint about The Quiet American is that we don’t see enough of Pyle’s conviction, and what it does to him; instead of making an impassioned, moving case for why Vietnam needs American involvement, he (briefly, yet regrettably) sounds like another imperialist, a caricature from other movies decrying the American influence in region. Maybe that was Greene’s intention, or maybe Noyce was unable to transition that part from page to screen. It is a bit of a loss, though, because when Fowler is finally motivated into action (“Sooner or later, Mr. Fowler, one has to take sides”), the choice he makes is a bit too easy. But Caine carries it with such gravitas and weight that a part of you dies with him. Do Thi Hai Yen is captivating as the innocent and idealized Phuong, but she only ever seems to be stilted and restrained (around Pyle), or coquettish (around Fowler). Hai Yen is a stunningly beautiful woman, but she does such little ... acting, for lack of a better word, that Fraser and Caine simply eat the screen around her.

Quibbles aside, The Quiet American stands as a brilliant movie. You can approach it from so many levels, a testament to both Graham Greene’s story and Phillip Noyce’s realization of it: it is a love story; it is a war movie; it is a political thriller; it is an angry denunciation of Western involvement in Vietnam; it is all those things, and it is so much more. It is, if you think about it, the perfect representation of the mystique and tragedy that was French Indochina, and the men who fell in love with the country and the phoenix that walked among its ashes.