America the Audacious
Is The Quiet American an anti-American movie? Its star, Michael Caine, doesn't think so. But, in recent interviews, he admits that the film criticizes the actions of those who brought America into the Vietnam War. Caine's statements are made because, in today's political situation, movies like The Quiet American must be released with care. The Graham Greene novel upon which this film is based earned its author the label of "anti-American," so I can understand Caine's concern.
However, I detect a broad criticism of American wrong-headedness in The Quiet American which is easily applied to today's political climate. And I find it fascinating that a story written over 50 years ago can still be so insightful about one of the U.S.A.'s most conspicuous and unique personality traits -- audacity.
Caine plays British journalist Thomas Fowler in 1952 Saigon, living quite comfortably as a field reporter with a young Vietnamese mistress, Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen). With the French colonialists and the Communists fighting for control of the country, the environment is unstable but not rocky enough to unhinge Fowler from his secure detachment. Nor is he in a hurry to ask his wife for a divorce. But when Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), a man whom Fowler ironically calls a "quiet American," introduces himself, events threaten to overturn Fowler's world on both the romantic and the political fronts.
Pyle's actions personify American audacity. He quickly falls for Phuong and, although valuing his new friendship with Fowler, looks for justifications to further his relationship to the girl and win her over, e.g., Fowler's current marriage may prevent him from ever marrying Phuong. Pyle believes he can provide Phuong with a better life than Fowler could offer her. Later, Fowler learns that Pyle supports an American Vietnam policy favoring quick actions and short-term solutions to prevent the spread of Communist evil. Pyle winds up dead (this is not a spoiler -- the movie begins with his death and proceeds with a flashback), and the amount of sympathy awarded to him by the film is blatantly minimal.
What intrigues me about this movie is how Pyle's personality can be applied to the modern America persona. Americans are still audacious -- one-upmanship often supersedes comraderie, easy answers to complex problems are often sought, and loudness is preferred to subtlety. In that regard, The Quiet American remains a relevant story today, but what it doesn't address is the fact that many Americans know this about themselves and aren't necessarily proud of it. Because Pyle is the only representative of America in the film, its condemnation of the American mindset remains unchallenged. Granted, a case might be made that Pyle is only one wrong-headed character in one particular story, but the fact that this character causes almost all the trouble in the movie, which coincides with Vietnam's descent into darker days ahead, makes that argument an uphill battle.
Would The Quiet American work better with a more balanced portrayal of the American attitude? Because it deals with a specific time, the naive '50s, probably not. Filmmaker Phillip Noyce achieves what he set out to do -- direct a strong adaptation of Greene's novel, a sturdy film version with the solid acting, script, and photography needed to bring it to life. Noyce just happens to have made it available in today's world. Hopefully, as Michael Caine wishes, American audiences will view the film in the context of its time and place -- while also recognizing their own reflected characteristics.
(Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.)
Released by Miramax and rated "R" for images of violence and some language.