March 6, 2003

Still Waters Run Deep

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Phillip Noyce’s The Quiet American is one of the few movies less concerned with the conflicts in Vietnam than with their causes. Its message is not fiercely political, nor romantic; the qualities its characters possess are not dependent on genre, but on human nature. If an ethical viewpoint emerges, it’s not a cliched “anti-war” one, but one that questions the very formation of those ethics.

Based on Graham Greene’s novel, Michael Caine is Thomas Fowler, a correspondent for the London Times in Saigon during the early 1950s. Barely valued by his editors, Fowler is resigned to disparagement and disenfranchisement in both politics and romance. Nevertheless, he has placed all his faith and passion in his lover, Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen). Phuong appears to love him, but generally seems aloof, more concerned with getting out of Vietnam than spiritual fulfillment with Fowler. Set in the period when the CIA began funding terrorism to garner national condemnation of the communists, a young American aid worker, Alden Pyle (Brendon Fraser), arrives and immediately begins pining for Phuong. The tension in this affair is mirrored politically by the contest between France, America, and the Communists for control of Vietnam.

Cinematographer Christopher Doyle has maintained what is perhaps the most important component of any Greene adaptation: shadows. As one of the few movies actually shot in the stifling tropical climate of Vietnam, Noyce has ensured that Greene’s existential noir is faithfully translated to the screen, capturing the characters’s vasicllating ethics visually. Almost every scene submerges either Caine or Fraser in darkness, obscuring motives while insinuating subconscious desires. While Noyce is preoccupied with sustaining this tone, his pacing establishes interactions between the characters that avoids melodrama. Under another director, Fraser’s disclosure of his love for Phuong in an exploding bunker would seem unnecessarily implausible. Instead, the movie’s trepidation seems dignified and natural, not belabored.

Of course, this effect is in no small measure the result of Caine’s excellent and subtle acting. Caine has had so many iconoclastic and impressive roles, it’s easy to take his skill for granted. Here his character travels through so many moods, from detached cynicism to blinded rage to self-pity, that Caine is always the focus, even when military hijinks threaten to hijack the picture. If Fraser has had the opposite problem, given so many buffoonish roles in insignificant films that an immediate dismissal is inviting, he similarly reinvents himself here. While still playing the naive, shy, polite good guy he always does for the majority of the movie, Fraser imbues Pyle with a menace that permits a greater range of emotions. While many of the Vietnamese actors seem hampered by their relatively inconsequential roles, the movie is a breakout for Do Thi Hai Yen. She stealthily balances nonchalance and passion, both Fowler’s muse and dilemma.

Through these rather un-“war movieish” characters that are too complex to fulfill any stereotype, the movie develops its theme of the “Quiet American,” of ambivalence as disguised action. For every character and in every situation, the central question is of engagement despite passive facades, of who is allied with what individual or government and for what purpose. Fowler’s reluctance to confront Pyle regarding either Phuong or the U.S. involvement is betrayed by his infuriated insistence on reattaining Phuong. Phuong’s facade of calmness is betrayed by her insistence on finding a lover able to extract her from the violence of the war. The “Quiet American” himself, pledging only to aid the victims, eventually displays how such claims of “aid” can escalate. Indeed, that escalation leads to disastrous ends for the movie’s characters, and would lead to equally disastrous ends for the United States, Vietnam, and Cambodia over the next two decades. As one character notes, “Sooner or later, one has to take sides. One has to remain human.” As The Quiet American shows, even the decision to not take sides is a decision, one that can easily be manipulated and yield pernicious repercussions.

While Caine has already been hailed for his performance, it is also a victory for Noyce after last year’s Rabbit-Proof Fence, an indication that the young director can straddle diverse topics and genres. Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein delayed the movie a year after 9/11 for depicting a United States that perpetrates crimes against humanity under the guise of passivity. Instead, The Quiet American offers an example of how lack of responsibility or, even worse, intentionally deceptive and propagandistic tactics can cripple intelligent people personally and globally.

Archived article by Alex Linhardt