The Quiet American didn't hit big last year. The bad timing of coming after the 9.11 calamity was blamed, but the film's impact would probably be underwhelming no matter when it was released. Like many adaptations of Graham Greene, its muted tone and final feeling of resignation aren't going to bring audiences to any emotional breakthroughs. One's response isn't, 'Yes, this is the truth about Vietnam and we have to tell the world', it's more like, 'Oh, Greene clearly communicated the rotten roots of American involvement in Vietnam 50 years ago, and nobody cared then either.' Beautifully produced and acted, this atmospheric thriller is low on thrills but overflowing with good characterizations. Authoritative Michael Caine and versatile Brendan Fraser both give very impressive performances.
"I think they're called CIA now."
Shot in actual Vietnam locations, The Quiet American counters an earlier Joseph Mankiewicz version with Audie Murphy (which Savant hasn't seen) that reportedly flipflops the Greene original to make Alden Pyle a misunderstood hero, much like Brando's turn in The Ugly American. The writers here return to the Greene interpretation of events, and the result is an accurate yet curiously toothless indictment of political intrigues in Vietnam during the French colonial period.
Greene's book was hot news in the middle 50s, as he'd been to Vietnam and knew what he was talking about. Intellectuals debated his ideas, even as they accepted official versions of what was happening overseas. The tragedy of making The Quiet American now is that it's too easily ignored. The kinds of political adventurism that the story shows in seed form, appear to have been the norm for the last 50 years, but the film's non-confrontational attitude makes it all seem like ancient history. The filmmakers are faithful to Greene's spirit, and leave out the overt revisionist messages.
That's how everyone likes it, however, because The Quiet American can easily be slanted as a dusky tropical romance. Greene's novel is really about the interior life of a jaded English journalist, who begins by comparing his serene but pliable Viet mistress to the country as a whole. Phuong is only slightly more advanced than a China doll stereotype - she's an undemanding concubine who allows herself to be shopped by her plain, practical sister. When Fowler lies to Phuong, hoping to buy time to keep her for himself a little longer, the intimate event becomes a bitter negotiation between four parties. It's like Europe (Thomas) reluctantly giving up Vietnam (Phuong) to America (Pyle) under aggravated duress.
The romance is atmospheric but has little chance of an uplifting ending, so we're left with a heroine we don't admire, and a hero who's rather pitiful. It's fair and credible but emotionally dim, unless the sad older man's attempts to hold onto his pet-like cortesan strike a strong note. Phuong is as graceful as a female can be, but her attractions are as based in security as they are affection.
The political setup, with a shady attempt to shoehorn an American-controlled puppet leader between the Communists and the French, is all too convincing, as the OSS/CIA was having great success at the time overthrowing whole countries in Latin America with just a couple of agents and a few guns. If anything, the death of Pyle (not a spoiler as it's revealed in the very first scene) is the only odd event. It's really a matter of personal jealousy, even though Fowler first gets Pyle to admit his complicity in the CIA shenanigans, before lowering the boom.
The film is masterful on all production levels. It looks terrific, and the few supporting players are very fine, especially Pham Thi Mai Hoa as Phuong's manipulative sister, and Tzi Ma as Fowler's interestingly - connected assistant, the sidekick assistant who turns out to be a major player. The combat and action scenes stress realism over sensation, but it's Caine and Fraser who hold all of our attention. The decent Fowler is mildly tainted by his scam-like relationship with his employers, but Fraser's Alden Pyle is the most dangerous kind of idealist, one who believes his country's good intentions give him rights over another land and another culture, willing to spend lives to try out cockamamie think-tank theories. The aggressively racist English in 1800 India were far more honest and honorable.
What most viewers won't pick up on, is that the personal 'romance' is a direct mirror of the political theme. In the end, Phuong is a negotiable chattel, and her relationship with either Anglo foreigner is an arrangement for security first and sentiment second. It's a subtle observation, that colonists who dominate little countries and cruelly control their futures, at the same time expect be loved for it.
Miramax's DVD of The Quiet American is very handsomely presented. The menus use pleasing artwork, and the animations are really very elegant, especially in the Vietnam timeline feature that spells out the country's tragically unnecessary history, post-WW2.
There's an 'Anatomy of a Scene' show from the Sundance Channel, and an original publicity featurette. I listened to the beginning of the commentary, only hearing director Phillip Noyce, who starts things off with a sincere personal take on the Vietnam experience (full list of commentators below). A nice text extra has three original reviews of Graham Greene's original novel, and a DVD-ROM extra is said to have a 'study guide'.
It's not very encouraging to think that a perceptive and serious film about foreign policy, that gives an excellent portrait of the possible cause of many of our problems today, can have so little of an impact. This example is quiet and serious, as 2001's The Tailor of Panama was sly and satirical. Don't let the surplus of liberal films fool ya - as a culture, we're still looking to Rambo and Missing in Action for the truth of this part of history.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Quiet American rates:
1. So many political movies lately, or movies that cause Savant to write about from a political POV. But don't you think I'm restraining my usual urge to jump on the soapbox?