THE QUIET AMERICAN
Director: Phillip Noyce
Cast: Michael Caine, Brendan Fraser, Do Thi Hai Yen, Tzi Ma, Pham Thi Mai Hoa, Quang Hai, Rade Serbedzija
MPAA Rating: (for images of violence and some language)
Running Time: 1:58
Release Date: 11/22/02 (limited); 2/7/03 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik
As he describes the country he's come to love—or at least grown greatly accustomed to—we get a sense of his idealism. After that, it's drowned out in cynicism and objectivity, and when it occasionally comes back into light, we remember that all pessimism is based in the dissatisfaction of not perceiving one's optimism being realized in the world at large. Now whether his cynicism is the result of his journalistic objectivity or his objectivity gives him an extensive view of the world that results in a cynical worldview is one of those chicken-and-egg ponderings that doesn't change our view of Thomas Fowler. In The Quiet American, Michael Caine plays Fowler, a man of strong ideals who refuses to publicize them, either because of his job or because years of disappointment have taught him better. Brendan Fraser plays his antithesis, the titular character, a man who wears his beliefs on his sleeve but keeps his intentions silent. Despite Fowler's pessimism, both of these men are romantics with strong ideals; we can imagine them—in another world, at another time, and without the conflict over the love of a woman—regularly meeting and talking over coffee.
But in 1952 Saigon, Vietnam during the French Indochina War, there is too much at stake for either of these two men to simply talk. The opening of the film finds the American Alden Pyle (Fraser) stabbed. Fowler recalls the events that led to Pyle's murder. Fowler has been in Vietnam as a London Times correspondent on the conflict. He's developed an intensely devoted relationship to Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen), a local who works as a dancing partner at a neighborhood establishment. The relationship complicates things on many fronts. For Phuong, living with a non-Vietnamese man means that she will never be able to marry someone from her own country. Her sister (Pham Thi Mai Hoa) continuously makes Phuong aware of the fact. There's also Fowler's marital status, with a wife at home who refuses to grant him a divorce. This simply adds to Phuong's sister's disapproval of Fowler as a partner for her sister. So when Fowler meets the pleasant, seemingly politically naïve American, he understands why a man who would fight for the freedom of a country would do similar for a woman. Pyle instantly falls in love with Phuong, but Fowler has little worries at first about such competition. Fowler is much more concerned with keeping his job by uncovering the truth behind a mysterious massacre that both the French and the Communists deny doing.
After watching the film, my initial reaction was of having seen a great story of political intrigue told well, but as I sit here thinking, levels of depth, which I doubt I can fully grapple after a single viewing, slowly begin to open up to me. On a relatively simple reading, there's the character level. Despite the film's clear focus on the mystery, there's still a clear understanding of these characters established. What we have is Pyle's romantic idealism and, as Fowler calls it, "zeal" against Fowler's own "detachment." An explosion sounds in the distance as the two walk down the street. Fowler tells Pyle that it was a grenade; Pyle comments that it sounded like a car backfiring. After a while, Pyle will be able to tell the difference, Fowler notes, and indeed, later, he is. Fowler has been around long enough to know what the situation truly is. Another character notes that Fowler sees conspiracies everywhere. The irony, of course, is that one is unfolding before him. Caine is outstanding in capturing Fowler's world-weariness. His eventual movie toward compassion, which we see slip through every once in a while, and even slower move toward action, which we don't see coming, is note perfect. Fraser is also quite good; he can play this kind of role with ease.
With developed characters established, the political issues of the film take on a deeper level. At its bare essentials, the film serves as a commentary on American involvement in Vietnam, who came in with their own ideological agenda well before the actual Vietnam Conflict began. There are the straightforward events, like the mysterious appearance of a third political entity led General Thé (Quang Hai) and a devastating car bombing in a crowded market place, but there are also more allegorical implications and developments represented by these characters. In major scenes, Pyle appears primarily in white, which is a pretty clear symbol for concepts like innocence and purity—probably indicative of how he perceives himself and his cause—and it's a startling antithesis later once we understand his true motives and deeds. As events progress, it becomes clear to Fowler that he must make a decision. He's made a point of not taking sides up until now, but he is forced to by circumstances. Near the end of the film, Phuong tells Fowler, "You never need to apologize to me." Interesting that, early on, Pyle makes a point that all Vietnamese are like her; she is Vietnam.
On a technical level, director Phillip Noyce has crafted an exceptional piece of cinema. After the film's prologue, there's a stunning extended shot of the Saigon River at night that starts of idyllic and serene at first, as boats sit peacefully upon the quiet water and people enjoy the night sky. Then in the distance, we see explosions and tracer fire and hear gunshots. It's truly a remarkable image. Another powerful sequence is the car bombing. Noyce captures a dreadful sense of unease and quiet moments of regularity before it happens; the aftereffects are shocking and disturbing. Noyce follows it all from Fowler's point of view, in yet another extraordinary moment from Caine. Noyce uses perspective to fascinating effect throughout the film. Note the dialogue scenes, which feature actors facing directly toward the camera as if the audience were the character they are talking to (much like the style of Jonathan Demme), and yet they are looking slightly beyond the camera. Noyce avoids distracting us with cinematic device but still manages to help us become more involved in the characters.The most resonant theme of The Quiet American is: At what cost? There are no heroes in the film. Plain old romanticism is dead at the beginning and, as we later learn, probably never existed in the first place; open-mindedness and not being tied down to anything is ultimately disregarded. To achieve what he believes Fowler must, in a way, do what he's protesting against. Then, in an ultimate irony, he must stand back and watch as it comes to pass anyway. What he has done has been in vain. That is Thomas Fowler's tragedy.
Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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