Quiet American, The (2002) *** 1/2
Directed by Phillip Noyce. Written by Robert Schenkkan & Christopher Hampton, based on the novel by Graham Greene. Photography, Christopher Doyle. Editing, John Scott. Production design, Roger Ford. Music, Craig Armstrong. Producers, William Horberg, Staffan Ahrenberg. Cast: Michael Caine (Thomas Fowler), Brendan Fraser (Alden Pyle), Do Thi Hai Yen (Phuong), Tzi Ma (Hinh), Robert Stanton (Joe Tunney), Pham Thi Mai Hoa (Miss Hei) and Quong Hai (General Thé). A Miramax release. 101 minutes. R.
Saigon, 1952. Vietnam -a French colony for 80 years-- is in mega-turmoil. The French are trying to hang on to this beautiful, extensively Gallicized country. Lovely Saigon is a lovely a kind of little Paris, down to French pop songs and French cuisine. The Europeans-- many of them born in that land-feel that they belong there, that they would be dishonored if they let it go. It would be like a secession.
Thomas Fowler (Caine) is a Brit reporter who loves the place, arguably many of its people, and definitely his beautiful mistress Phuong who is young enough to be his granddaughter. They met when she was a taxi-dancer. Fowler is no gung-ho journalist, yet he is anxious to be useful to his paper, so that he will not be recalled to England.
Enter American newcomer Alden Pyle-whose last name is like that of Ernie Pyle, that legendary reporter who was killed shortly before World War II ended. Pyle is the "quiet" American, soft-spoken, modest and gentle, unlike the common European concept of loud, brash Yanks. He is there ostensibly to help people with medical problems (symbolically, eye troubles,) but soon Fowler (with whom Pyle makes friends) smells a rat. Pyle and his people are doubtlessly C.I.A (or similar) envoys sent to lay the ground for an American intervention in the country after the French leave it, and counter the Communist Viet Minh insurgents.
Pyle falls in instant love with Phuong, timidly yet openly. Fowler's intimations of mortality are excellently shown. His desperate attempts to stay in Saigon are pathetic. He'll marry the girl if his wife, back in England, agrees to a divorce. But the lady's written reply is "I do not believe in divorce...and my religion forbids it." That's pure Graham Greene. His Catholicism pervades much of his work (who can forget his "whisky priest" of his "The Power and the Glory" that became the movie "The Fugitive"?)
Inextricably mixed political and personal problems, the twists and machinations are a maze yet remain very clear. It is fascinating how well sentiments and cool are blended, how acts and the action increase steadily, how all the characters (down to Fowler's single employee who remains an odd mystery) are handled. I say "action" but it is nuanced, without pat or patented scenes, and unlike the gung ho treatments by Hollywood.
This, one of the best films of recent years, was ready for a 2002 release but was shelved because of worries about its nature in the aftermath of the 9-11 attack, plus the Iraq situation. Shown "confidentially" in late 2002 in order to be eligible for the Oscars, it finally surfaced on the screens in early 2003.
It has a splendid pedigree. The Australian director Phillip Noyce has made very good films which include "Backroads," "Newsfront," "Heatwave," "Dead Calm"(which really launched Nicole Kidman even though she had been in at least a dozen pictures,) "Patriot Games," "Clear and Present Danger," and the recent "Rabbit-Proof Fence." Additionally, the large roster of executive producers includes two excellent directors, Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack.
All-time great Michael Caine is spellbinding as a sharp, sophisticated, ironical, suffering character and protagonist. Both terms apply to him. He plays a character who is also "a character" and a protagonist in the etymological Greek sense of "agon," meaning "fight, battle and competition." And he agonizes splendidly in every way within a film rich in undercurrents. But there is nothing blatant or obvious about him, and, for that matter, in the rest of the cast, down to the minor parts.
Ace cinematographer Christopher Doyle (Australian) seems to hold the record of Caucasians who have shot having shot Chinese films, easily some two dozen of them, many very good. Alas, in the USA, because of our widespread ignorance of foreign movies, I believe that only "In the Mood for Love" is a familiar title, if that. His photography here -in no less than seven locations inside Vietnam -is exemplary. Then, of course, there's that splendid writer-novelist-reporter and film critic Graham Greene (1904-1991) who also held a record: over 40 movies (mostly top-notch) were made from his books, stories or scripts.
The short novel "The Quiet American" (1956) became a Hollywood film in 1958, made by that major writer-director-producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Greene was displeased with it, and at loggerheads with the director, whom he accused of whitewashing America's policies and politics. The book was a cautionary story as the U.S.A. wanted to replace the French who, after their 1954 defeat at Dien Bien Phu had left Vietnam. Were Mr. Greene alive today, he would no doubt give this remake his blessing.
I cannot vouch that it will be grasped by all viewers. Dien Bien Phu and the Vietnam War were long ago, by now beyond the memory of most audiences. We know too how often the excuse for not knowing history is "that was before my time." Oh, well
There are two problems with the film. One is that different times have been given for it, ranging from 101 minutes to about 120, which, some say, was its length at the Toronto Film Festival. Mind you, if the movie was edited down and cut for fear that, in these touchy times, something or other might be taken as "anti-American" the viewers, including myself, were not conscious of excisions.
The other problem is the sound. Narrations come through loud and clear. But much of the dialogue is so low in decibels that it becomes muddy at times.. I checked this out with several fellow watchers --none of them afflicted with surdity-who had trouble understanding the actors.
I then went to a database and perused about seventy reactions by "users," i.e. not professional critics. There was only a single complaint -- but an extremely strong one. It seemed to reflect the reaction of more than one person. From this and other movies, there's no doubt in my mind that while they get increasingly agile and fanciful in their visuals, sound balance is too often mishandled.