Something deep within me wants to champion the cause of "The Quiet American," the second cinematic adaptation of Graham Greene's novel about U.S. machinations in 1950's Vietnam. Miramax kept the film on the shelf for over a year, fearing that a critical assessment of American foreign policy would appear unpatriotic in the wake of Sept. 11. The movie's belated arrival in theaters should indeed be cause for celebration -- were the actual product not so utterly strident and inelegant in its "message-movie" posturing.
The story sees 'Nam through the eyes of Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine), a "London Times" reporter who's been in Saigon long enough to become completely seduced -- by the land, by the lifestyle, and most significantly by his mistress, Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen). It's a decadent little reality he's carved out for himself, as we can tell by his admission that he's filed only three stories in the last year. To avoid punitive reassignment, Fowler decides to dig a little deeper into the conflicts that are beginning to shape the country's bloody future. At the same time, Fowler encounters Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), a representative of the U.S. Economic Development Commission, who claims to be around on innocent business but just happens to turn up in the most dangerous places at the most dangerous times. Hmmmm.
The true nature of Pyle's mission is one of several "mysteries" the movie telegraphs so loudly that it makes Fowler (who's a reporter, remember) look quite the dummy for not catching on quicker. When Pyle develops his own attraction to Phuong, the story becomes a love triangle that's meant to symbolize the paternalistic pawing of Vietnam by the West. (At one point, Fowler remarks of Phuong that he has "started her on Bach.") This colonialism-as-violation analogy is only slightly less overt than it was in "M. Butterfly," which is to say, it's pretty overt. Neither is there any coherence to the Fowler/Pyle rivalry, which moves in indecipherable cycles of enmity and amity.
In the movie's favor, it's lovely to look at (it was shot on location), and Caine's nuanced performance will be a real wake-up call to a generation that knows him mostly as a guy who keeps the lights on by appearing in a lot of shit. As for Fraser, let's just say that, since "Gods and Monsters," his value continues to elude me.
Director Phillip Noyce maintains a heavy-handed tone that's the antithesis of his manifest restraint in the current "Rabbit-Proof Fence." Every American we meet is a boor, a mountain of bad manners and even worse intentions. (I'm not saying that this isn't true -- just that it makes for inadequate drama.) Fowler's patronization is written off as benign as the movie pushes toward a conclusion that posits ill-refined Yankery as the ultimate evil, and the Brits as our rightful moral cleanup crew. Is choosing the lesser of two imperialists really what passes for a bargain these days?