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Miramax’s decision to delay the release of The Quiet American post-Sept. 11 seems sadly misguided. Bomb-’em-back-to-
the-Stone Age hawks won’t be offended by a Vietnam tale that predates our most harrowing involvement there, even one that disparages intervention—whether of the brute American or the insinuating British kind—in uncertain international affairs. And if U.S. foreign policy has held anything to be true during the course of its existence, it’s that hope springs eternal, from Panama to Chile to Haiti to Somalia to Vietnam to Afghanistan to Iraq. One little Graham Greene adaptation isn’t going to change that. Besides, the film’s “And look where that got us” message is tricked out so fallaciously—as a twisty spy thriller—that policy recedes and personality dominates.
It’s hard not to assume any Brendan Fraser character to be a hero. His Alden Pyle, all blustering friendliness and smooth moves with the ladies, is the echt American champion, a joiner and pleaser whose motives are utterly enigmatic. He bursts upon the imperialist reveries of Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine), an orchids- and opium-besotted British journalist trying to spin out his assignment in 1952 Saigon by covering stories that happen to break on the sun-splashed courtyard of the Continental Hotel. The folks back home don’t know the difference anyway—it isn’t their war. At this point, with the Battle of Dien Bien Phu two years away, the strife belongs to the communist insurgents trying to break France’s faltering grip on Indochina. A big-shouldered American goofball claiming to work in ophthalmics for the Economic Aid Mission is the last person Fowler expects to meet…and meet…and meet, again and again, in a series of comic coincidences that will have audiences mentally screaming, “Spy! Spy! Spy!”
Pyle and Fowler, for all their sensitive and intelligent treatment at the actors’ hands, are iconic types tussling for an iconic soul—that of Vietnam herself, in the thuddingly obvious form of the exquisite Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen). The men trade political points of view while vying for the woman, and Fraser is even made to speechify about the direct connection between Phuong’s situation and that of her country. Pyle is very concerned about the right behavior as regards courting this elusive Asian prop—he’s the quintessential earnest American bulldozing a country for its own good, justifying it with pink-cheeked-Boy Scout reasoning. Fowler, gone soft with love for the girl and her homeland (from which he wants to snatch her and set her up in chilly London), is blind to the possibility that a suitor, even one as eager-beaver as Pyle seems, would track him to a tinderbox of conflict to ask him to give her up. But of course Pyle would, because the prize he truly covets is something much bigger.
Girl=country, country=girl. Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan’s script and Christopher Doyle’s spectacular cinematography show the beauty of this central dual character but none of its more profound allure. Though this makes The Quiet American a treat for the eyes, it dilutes the idea that there might be something larger to learn about interventionist motives, aside from their naivete. (If prettiness is an imperialist goal, I say we invade Paris tomorrow. And Cancun—or do we own most of it already?) While still pretending to be ill at ease with the level of complexity and violence he faces in Vietnam, Pyle expertly imitates Fowler when they trek into the jungle to a Northern hot spot. A French soldier hands them guns, saying, “You don’t want to be taken alive.” They nod uncomprehendingly, until he says, “Shoot yourselves.” They thank him.
But Pyle doesn’t need instruction in whom to turn the gun on. As the pair heads back, he extricates Fowler from an attack along a deserted road, where their ambushed car has run out of gas. Fowler, finally onto a real story, keeps finding Pyle blocking his way—hey, this fellow’s ophthalmic instruments use some very odd chemicals, and he’s working with some awfully dicey people. Finally, after a horrific terrorist assault on the site of Saigon’s swishest international watering hole, Pyle lets loose a stream of fluent Vietnamese that finally drops the penny in Fowler’s mind, even if the rest of us spotted the spook 10 minutes in.
In the world of the film, honorable acts get the Westerner nowhere in Vietnam—but honorable intentions, no matter how brutally implemented, build empires. It’s only a hindsight view of the nasty omelet the States left behind in 1973 that argues differently. But if Caine’s muzzy, easily led Fowler makes The Quiet American sometimes seem more anti-British than it should from our vantage point, Noyce ultimately pins the blame where it belongs, running the facts of later American involvement in the Vietnam conflict as a closing montage.
Caine may be the British Dan Aykroyd, accepting every role that crosses his desk, but oh, if only our Dan Aykroyd were more like Michael Caine. It isn’t just the reflexive suavity of Caine’s every performance that’s so freshly stunning in every film, or the secretly sentimental arch of the eyebrow that has never left him since Alfie. It’s also that magnificent voice: purring, gravelly, and completely seductive in its slightly cockeyed rhythms. He’s Fowler to the teeth, but simply as a function of time and exposure, he’s himself, too—a problem Fraser doesn’t face. As effortless as his co-star, but more complex, the younger actor builds up strata of both accessibility and unknowability with each beefy handshake. Fraser gives The Quiet American its real indelibility, revealing himself as not only one of our most versatile young stars, but also as the only possible Pyle. CP