The Quiet American
directed by Phillip Noyce
(Buena Vista, 2002)

Thomas Fowler is a London Times correspondent, circa 1952, who's perfected the art of not covering the Vietnam War from his office in Saigon. Phuong is a Vietnamese woman who has perfected the art of keeping Fowler happy. And Alden Pyle is a "Quiet American" who has been sent to Saigon on a medical mission. Or so he says.

Complicating the personal situation is the fact that Pyle (Brendan Fraser) is immediately drawn to Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen), who wants to marry Fowler (Michael Caine), but can't, because he has a wife back in England who won't grant him a divorce.

Complicating the political situation is the fact that local communists are on the verge of driving the French from Southeast Asia, while General The, leader of Vietnamese forces, has announced the formation of a "third way," a supposedly independent Vietnamese force that will drive the communists out of Southeast Asia on the heels of the fleeing French.

Like many of Graham Greene's works, The Quiet American pulls together personal and political intrigues in an ever-tightening web that's sure to strangle someone before the story ends. But this film, unlike many before it, has the advantage of being shot in Southeast Asia by Phillip Noyce, director of the art-house classic Rabbit-Proof Fence and the not-so-artsy Clear & Present Danger. Noyce gives his Saigon a smoldering look that outstrips its sense of danger.

It's erotic long before anyone takes off any clothes -- possibly the most sensuous-looking film since Peter Weir's Year of Living Dangerously. Noyce also lets Fowler narrate portions of the film, which brings Greene's prose directly to the screen.

"They say you can come to Vietnam and you learn a lot in a few minutes," Fowler says as the film opens, adding: "The rest has got to be lived." And live Fowler does, in spite of bombings, in spite of attempts to send him back to London, in spite of attempts on his life by members of the Third Way, in spite of that body found floating in the river which touches off Fowler's flashback to events surrounding Pyle's arrival.

And learn he does: that the Third Way seems to have the backing of CIA officials, that there's something phony about the massacres that are being blamed on the communists, that the plastic material supposedly imported by Pyle for his medical aid project also can be used to create explosives. All these crosscurrents make for one maelstrom of a movie -- enough to shatter, momentarily at least -- even an Englishman's stiff upper lip. But The Quiet American is about much more than plots and counterplots.

Like Graham Greene's Third Man, which was released just a few years before Quiet American takes place, it's about people -- fetching but flawed people, kicked into action by facts they don't want to know.

Caine, who was nominated for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for his performance, is the epitome of doubt as he cobbles together what's left of his life in Saigon one more time. Yen is far more beautiful than anyone should ever be allowed to be, a walking metaphor for the Mekong Delta, caught between powerful forces, but intent on steering her own course. And Fraser gives Pyle just enough dufus-ness to cover the fact that he's not what he appears to be -- either as a lover or an aid worker.

The Quiet American begins with a body floating in the river. It ends with Fowler telling us: "They say there is a ghost in every house, and if you can make peace with him, he will stay quiet." Given what was to take place in Vietnam over the next 22 years (covered fleetingly by Noyce in a newspaper-montage epilogue), perhaps the experts would have been better off deferring to Greene.

The Quiet American gives us rip-snorting action, a tale of love, trust and betrayal, and pause to reflect, all in 113 minutes.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 15 January 2005

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