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3 reviews, 24 user ratings

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Quiet American, The (2002)
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by Stephen Groenewegen

"Warring passions"
4 stars

Like his last film, Rabbit-Proof Fence, director Phillip Noyce’s The Quiet American is a far cry from the blockbuster thrillers he churned out in Hollywood last decade. The first major Western movie to shoot in Vietnam, The Quiet American is a largely faithful adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1955 novel. A political drama, set in 1952 Saigon during the French-Vietnamese Communist conflict, it incidentally charts the origins of American military involvement in Vietnam. But its core is a love triangle with two men competing for the affection of a young Vietnamese woman, Phuong (newcomer Do Hai Yen).

Michael Caine is Thomas Fowler, a correspondent for The Times in London. Fowler considers himself an impartial reporter who doesn’t become personally involved in his assignments. But Vietnam has worked its way into his weary bones; he’s been seduced by the country, its habits (smoking opium) and its people, to the extent of taking Phuong as his mistress. All that remains for him in London is an obstinately Catholic wife, who won’t grant him a divorce. This is a matter of overwhelming disappointment to Phuong’s older, comically pragmatic sister (Pham Thi Mai Hoa), who would like to see her charge prosperously and permanently married.

Fowler is spurred to action by a telegram from The Times, threatening to recall him for his inactivity. Following a lead from his assistant Hinh (Tzi Ma), he heads north to Phat Diem to cover a rumoured skirmish. While there, a recent acquaintance - “quiet American” Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), an employee at the Economic Aid mission - professes his desire to marry Phuong and remove her to Boston when his work in Vietnam is completed.

Pyle is tall, awkward and gangly where Fowler is composed and grave. The younger, inexperienced man gushes his love for Phuong and paternalistically maps out her future as if he had every right to barge in and take her. Fowler can’t admit his devotion to his mistress, and doesn’t take her presence for granted - he’s too wary of his happiness being snatched from him. Fowler and Pyle also clash politically. Professing not to take sides, Fowler nevertheless mocks Pyle’s enthusiasm for a Vietnamese “third faction” as youthful naiveté. It is accepted wisdom in Washington that the ideal outcome for the country is an independent ruler - a third force not allied to the French that will prevent Vietnam becoming a Communist country.

That Caine and Fraser are able to invest their characters with human complexity, and raise them above the level of mouthpieces, is no small achievement. In Greene’s schema, each apex of this love triangle is a political power - the old colonialist trying to hang onto a good thing, the absurdly brash but forceful interloper and, in between, the captivating object of their affection who is also open to their (Western) influence. What’s disappointing is that we’re not left to figure this out for ourselves - it’s spelt out a little too obviously in the otherwise fine adaptation by Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan.

Perhaps that’s Noyce’s strong commercial instincts coming to the fore. There are several other overemphatic sequences, including some unnecessary slow motion towards the end. These threaten to spoil the languorous and foreboding mood established by Noyce and Chris Doyle’s misty, silk-screen cinematography, and ably supported by Craig Armstrong’s insistent score. But the closing montage, tracing a clear line between what we’ve witnessed and the American-Vietnam War of the following two decades, is equally powerful for its simple directness.

Caine is especially memorable as author-surrogate Fowler (Greene wrote the book after spending time in Vietnam in the 1950s). In his hands, The Quiet American is as much a human drama about a man learning to take responsibility and admit what’s important to him as it is about the tools of war. There’s a stunning scene where Fowler is aware that he holds a man’s fate in his hands and paces the room in front of his quarry, weighing up his options and whether that man should live or die.

It’s unsurprising that the film’s American distributor, Miramax, was nervous about its Stateside reception. Besides featuring a shocking terrorist act, the representational “quiet American” is portrayed as terminally naive, even when he thinks he’s being shrewd. Pyle basks in the knowledge that America can back its aggression with superior power and resources.

To his credit, Noyce hasn’t shied from Greene’s material or made a simple-minded propaganda film. The Quiet American is a thoughtful entertainment that doesn’t sacrifice the complexities or intertwined motives of its metaphorical characters.

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originally posted: 01/14/03 13:29:13
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User Comments

9/11/15 Anne caine a dried out old man, seemingly, and love interest flat,politically strong 2 stars
1/09/09 Shaun Wallner Interesting Story! 4 stars
7/11/07 Hello Stranger so much more could have been done. and better. it lacks something. but not scrpit. 3 stars
8/31/05 R.W. Welch Well polished opus on love and war in old Saigon, tho not box office stuff. 4 stars
6/01/05 al Pacino This movie and Book Blowed C0ck Fuck this shit 1 stars
1/28/04 Phil M. Aficionado Groenewegen has written my thougts exactly. Tells a story very well and with right mood. 4 stars
11/27/03 John a wonderful script beautifully shot and acted 5 stars
10/08/03 Quiet Voice Great movie, Caine set up Frasier to retaliate him courting his mistress. Cheap shot!!! 4 stars
8/29/03 May Q. Horney What, Stephen Groenewegen? A simple-minded propoganda film is exactly what this is! 2 stars
5/22/03 Desert Rat Asian cast was great! Frazier was a little weak tho. 4 stars
3/20/03 Andrew Carden Caine and Frazier Light Up The Screen In This Captivating Film. 5 stars
3/18/03 Shadaan Felfeli One of the better films of 2003. Caine and Do thi Ya Hein are good. 4 stars
3/12/03 Wendy great movie 5 stars
3/08/03 Nancy N. wasn't perfect, but the world's current politics make it a worthwhile film 4 stars
2/27/03 Beverly Cole The REAL naivety here - "Liberty is a western term", so communism may as well take over! 3 stars
2/22/03 Jim the movie geek Disappointing. Caine is, well, like Caine, nothing new, and the story has a soapie feel! 3 stars
2/22/03 Goofy Maxwell He spoke softly, but he didn't carry a big enough stick. 4 stars
2/20/03 Ronald Stone good dialog - best movie of 2003 4 stars
1/21/03 Aiken Drum Thought the love story was crap. Didn't feel anything for the characters. 3 stars
1/19/03 Matthew Smith a magnificent film, Michael Caine's best performance in a long time 5 stars
1/17/03 John Bale Greens novel admirably filmed, time and place captured. Aged Caine still remarkable 5 stars
12/23/02 Hany Kirolous a romantic movie with a political and moral dimensions 5 stars
12/04/02 Heather Great performance from Michael Caine and a searing indictment of US foreign policy in Nam 5 stars
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  22-Nov-2002 (R)



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