Friday, October 31, 2003

Movie Review: The Quiet American

Set in the early 1950's in Saigon, Vietnam, as the French/Indo-China war is running its course and US interests are taking root in the form of CIA operatives, "The Quiet American" is the best movie that this reviewer has seen in recent memory.

Michael Caine plays an aging and jaded foreign correspondent by the name of Fowler, living and working in Saigon and squeezing out a minimum of work for his editors in London. His sole reason for staying in Saigon is his love affair with a young Vietnamese woman named Phuong (played by Do Thi Hai Yen). Fowler seemingly has managed to carve out a comfortable existence while leaving an unhappy wife and other personal problems behind him in London.

Into Fowler's world steps Alden Pyle (played by Brendan Fraser), an American who has recently moved to Saigon under the guise of providing humanitarian aid to the Vietnamese. Pyle makes no qualms about his political views regarding the evils of communism and the need for the US to provide the means for the Vietnamese people to achieve democracy. His benign exterior convinces most that he is a kind-hearted person with a passionate hobby for studying political doctrine.

Pyle and Fowler almost immediately develop a strange relationship in which Pyle plainly falls in love with Fowler's mistress Phuong, while still remaining friends with Fowler. Fowler is taken with Pyle's apparent good heart and naive outlook on life and the American's infatuation with Phuong does not initially result in any outward hostility between the two. Consumed with questions about his own character and knowing that he will never marry Phuong (largely due to his wife's refusal to grant him a divorce), Fowler wavers between allowing Phuong to make her own choice regarding a mate or guarding his love for her with any available argument or rationale.

At the same time that Fowler is facing a crisis in his personal life with the possibility that he may lose Phuong, his editors in London send a telegram notifying him that they are ending his assignment in Vietnam. Fowler knows that he is being recalled for his lack of production as a reporter. Knowing that there are rumours of atrocities in the North, Fowler heads to the trouble spot in hopes of producing a report that will keep his editors happy and extend his stay in Vietnam.

Travelling with French troops in the North, Fowler meets Pyle, who claims to be only getting a first hand look at the hardships that the Vietnamese are suffering as the French battle with communist insurgents. Fowler and Pyle witness the aftermath of a massacre and later huddle in a bunker as bombs explode around them. Pyle advises Fowler that he is smitten with Phuong and hopes to marry her. This is one of many examples in which the director demonstrates how personal relationships are a microcosm of the broader conflict that is playing out around the characters.

One more journalistic sojourn within Vietnam takes place, where Fowler and Pyle again cross paths and the viewer begins to see the actions of Pyle and his American embassy colleagues in a different light. The action in the movie leads to a gripping and brutal climax, with the viewer seeing the stage set for further involvement by the US in Vietnam during the 1960's and 70's.

"The Quiet American" is based on the novel of the same name by Graham Greene. Having read Greene's classic a few years ago, I believe that this is one of the best film adaptations of a book, in terms of faithfully representing and accomplishing onscreen the same as what the author intended and achieved in the novel. Greene was famous for his spare style of writing and that rare ability to say as much with what is said, as with what is left unsaid. The director of this movie, Philip Noyce, captures not only an accurate retelling of the story onscreen, but uses all the tools of a good film-maker that results in the same ambiguous characters and situations, the same haunting quality and the same troubling questions about human nature that appear in the novel.

This movie works on many different levels. The cinematography and camera angles are fantastic. The atmospheric night scenes in Saigon and darkly-lit interior shots are highlighted against the French colonialist architecture that surely makes a person want to visit the city the first chance they get (although the scenes were apparently shot in Hanoi).

The editing is almost flawless, making a relatively complicated plot with numerous subsidiary characters easy to follow.

Michael Caine puts in an amazing performance that resulted in an Academy award nomination. The likelihood that he would win was almost nonexistent due to the level of blind and rabid patriotism that was running rampant (and still is) in the US, and that reality played out as Caine was snubbed at the awards in March, 2003. The troubling questions that the movie raised about US foreign policy and covert actions in countries around the world, meant that Caine did not receive the recognition that he was due.

Most of us living in this part of the world will also appreciate the effect that the Vietnamese beauty has on the two main characters. The occasional voiceover narration by Fowler, in which he laments the powerful hold that the enchanting Phuong has on him, will also leave many of us nodding in empathy.

This is not the usual Hollywood movie with Americans as the heroes spewing righteous oaths and the enemy depicted as a ridiculous stereotype. There are no simplistic characters that are only either good or bad. The self-justification that takes place in personal relationships is constantly played against the world of grand political ideals and theories and the lies, hypocrisy and killing that is necessary to implement those ideas. This is about the power of ideas and how so frequently those concepts trump everything else including human lives. The decision to choose one set of ideas over another often makes a person complicit in all the effects that the application of those ideas can have, not just the ones they intended.

This is a timely movie as well, as many people on the planet now see Americans as the greatest threat to a relative world peace. As with the character of Pyle in the movie, the American government has long fostered a public image of benevolence and goodnaturedness while casually driving a knife into the backs of countries around the world. The sheen is gone and most people see through the charade of receiving a handshake and a bullet in the back of the head at the same time. The involvement of the CIA in various parts of the globe is one of the world's worst kept secrets. The US launched invasion against Iraq resulted from conditions that they (the US) largely helped to create because of their meddling and greed. The animal rage that a person feels when they see their family and friends butchered is the same in everyone and no amount of philosophizing about achieving a greater good in the long haul will wipe out a person's desire for revenge.

"The Quiet American" is a film that will leave you thinking about it for days after you have seen it. I urge anyone who is tired of the jingoistic, simplistic Hollywood movies about war, or simply enjoys a well-made and fast-paced drama with exceptional performances, to see this film.