It’s not surprising that this movie was held back from release for a period of time, the thought being that it wasn’t something likely to go down well after 9/11. Not that the film is casually “distasteful” in the manner that temporarily put the brakes on junk like Collateral Damage. Nor does it contain newly volatile symbols tied to our national identity (the Twin Towers were digitally removed from the New York City skyline in Zoolander, for instance, and more recently, the trailer for The Core was yanked because it showed the space shuttle in peril).
There’s nothing about The Quiet American that directly addresses anything that is currently “sensitive”; the film has proven problematic for very different reasons: Namely, it questions the role of America in world events.
The film questions CIA involvement in creating a Vietnam that could effectively be peddled to America — and American politicians — as worthy of U.S. invasion. And while Vietnam is still a volatile subject, the real problem for The Quiet American is that its filmmakers have made it impossible not to connect it to a broader picture of American involvement overseas, especially in the current political climate. That, of course, is the greatness of a film like this: It’s as relevant to today as it is to the time the actual story takes place.
And that’s also the marketing nightmare faced by Miramax: The studio has had to question whether Americans wanted to see a movie that’s not uncritical of their country. But the film was too good not to release, so release it Miramax did — with as little fanfare as possible, despite Michael Caine’s Oscar nomination for best actor. And that’s too bad, because The Quiet American deserves to be seen.
Graham Greene’s 1955 novel (which now seems so eerily prophetic) was first filmed in ’58 by no less than Joseph L. Mankiewicz. But not even Mankiewicz, who wrote and directed one of the first attacks on the McCarthy witch hunts (People Will Talk, 1951), was about to tackle this material head-on. This result was a movie that stood Greene’s novel on its head, turning the “villain” of the piece — the titular quiet American — into a kind of hero.
Director Phillip Noyce and screenwriters Christopher Hampton (Carrington) and Robert Schenkkan (Crazy Horse) set this to rights, bringing to the screen not only Greene’s novel but much of the atmosphere and style inherent in the author’s writing. This adaptation isn’t afraid to approach the material in all its complexity and unpleasantness. And complex the film is: This isn’t simple-minded anti-U.S. propaganda; in fact, it isn’t anti-American at all. The film, true to Greene’s novel, is way too savvy and intelligent to go in for an easy target. In fact, Alden Pyle (here played by Brendan Fraser, in the first role worthy of him since his part in Gods and Monsters) is clearly not a bad man. He’s simply someone whose beliefs have gotten in the way of his humanity.
For that matter, The Quiet American, while political, is not, strictly speaking, about politics. It’s a beautifully etched film about people who are impacted by the politics so central to their world. I don’t recall if The Quiet American is one of the books Greene deemed a “novel” or an “entertainment” (he divided his works into those categories, saving the term “novel” for his more “serious” writings), but it has elements of both. The story is part political philosophy, part political intrigue, part romance and part human-relationships study. Noyce and the screenwriters have nailed Greene with the kind of accuracy not seen since Carol Reed’s two Greene films, The Third Man and Our Man in Havana. And if Noyce and Co. don’t quite come up to the level of The Third Man (few films do), they’re at least on even footing with Our Man in Havana, which The Quiet American sometimes resembles in its fin-de-siecle atmosphere.
The main characters are neither strictly good, nor strictly bad; they’re simply people with their own needs, virtues and vices. While it’s easy to read Michael Caine’s character, London Times correspondent Thomas Fowler, as a kind of hero, his heroism is both self-serving and forced upon him. Fowler is a man who has been seduced by Vietnam, though not seeming to care all that much about the country until it suits him. When Fowler’s recall to London becomes a factor — something that will cause him to give up an easy lifestyle and leave behind his Vietnamese mistress, Phuong (Do Thai Hi Yen) — only then does he take an active interest in the country. And, at first, he does so only as a means to staying there. It’s only when Fowler sees the extremes to which Pyle will go — the death and suffering Pyle causes — that he begins to care and finally understand the pronouncement made by his assistant (Tzi Ma, Rush Hour): A man is only human once he takes a side. But even then, it’s never completely clear just how much Fowler’s taking sides is motivated by genuine concern over Pyle’s CIA activities and how much is colored by Pyle having taken Phuong from him.
At the same time, it’s always obvious that Fowler actually likes Pyle, making none of what happens easy to witness — for either Fowler, or for the viewer. The Quiet American is a complex story with complex characters; as such, it’s apt to leave audiences in a thoughtful and unsettled state of mind, exactly as it ought to. This is a film worth seeing and worth thinking about — it’s certainly worth seeing for Caine’s Oscar-nominated performance (easily as worthy of such an accolade as those of Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York and Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt; and that’s saying a good deal).
Don’t waste time getting to this worthy film: The 9:35 showing I went to on Friday night was not heavily attended, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see The Quiet American vanish with undeserved haste.