Phillip Noyce, “The Quiet American” (2002)
A beautifully made film with much atmosphere, even if it is slow and unassuming in style, and its acting uneven, “The Quiet American” nevertheless makes quite an impression with its parallel plots that reflect and comment on each other. The people in the love triangle can be taken as metaphors for the geopolitical context in which they find themselves. Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine) is a jaded and world-weary British journalist working for The Times newspaper in 1950s-era Saigon (Vietnam) who submits little work on the French war on Vietnamese resistance to French rule while enjoying a hedonistic life-style with his young mistress Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen). Phuong’s older sister disapproves of the liaison because Fowler is already married – his estranged wife back in London refuses to give him a divorce because of her Catholic faith – and on top of that, Fowler does not have the money or connections that could get Phuong, her sister and the rest of their family out of Vietnam and into a Western country, preferably a rich one.
One day Fowler gets a message from his newspaper recalling him back to London over the little work he has done. Unwilling to return to a loveless marriage and at the prospect of losing Phuong, Fowler is in something of a quandary until he meets Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), an idealistic young American doctor working with a humanitarian US mission. Pyle is an enthusiastic follower of a scholar who expounds that colonial Vietnam cannot be saved by either the French or the Communists under Ho Chi Minh, but rather by a Third Force which Pyle earnestly hopes to be part of. By his words and deeds, Pyle challenges Fowler to re-examine his detached relationship to his job as a reporter, stop sitting on the fence with regard to his attitude on Vietnam’s war against France and start seeing Vietnam less as an exotic escapist playground and more as a real country of real people struggling and fighting for self-determination and independence between an old colonial force (France) and a new one (the United States).
Eventually Pyle meets Phuong and quickly falls head over heels in love with her. Unlike Fowler, Pyle comes from a wealthy East Coast background, has good career prospects and a clean marital slate, and Phuong’s mercenary sister starts pressuring the younger sibling to leave Fowler and hitch herself with Pyle. The love triangle that forms with Fowler, Pyle and Phuong becomes a metaphor for Vietnam’s struggle to break away from its old European past and determine its own future. What further complicates the love triangle – apart from Fowler’s anguish at losing Phuong and his rage at Pyle for taking her away – is Fowler’s discovery that Pyle is actually a CIA agent working secretly with Vietnamese army officer General Thé, backed by rich businessman Muoi, to wrest power away from France and Vietnamese Communists using violence and mass murder that can conveniently be blamed on the Vietminh.
Caine may be too old to play Fowler but his performance is subtle and suggests a character troubled by many past demons that force him and Phuong to live their lives in limbo amid an opium haze. At the same time this character is forced by changing circumstances to re-evaluate his life and his life’s purpose, and he is challenged to give something back to the country and the people who have been generous enough to host him. Caine portrays Fowler with all his troubles and the dilemma facing him brilliantly even if he is not fully absorbed into the character but plays Fowler as an extension of himself. The real surprise of the film is the casting of Brendan Fraser – who is usually better known for his comedy films and “The Mummy” franchise of low-brow films – as Pyle: Fraser smoothly pulls off playing a character who initially seems idealistic and missionary-like, innocent and bumbling at the same time, yet who turns out to be devious and sinister. Pyle is no less complex than Fowler in his motivations and cynicism, and Fraser expresses the more brutal aspects of the character fairly well. The weak point in the love triangle turns out to be Hai Yen’s Phuong who has very little to do except look very pretty in stunning clothes and obey others’ orders. She does not come across as someone whom two mature men would fight over just for her sake.
The supporting cast help pad out the complex plot against a background of picturesque city scenes and beautiful serene tropical landscapes where scenes of violence, mayhem and bloodshed unexpectedly erupt. Vietnam is suddenly no longer a playground where people like Fowler, fleeing complicated past lives, can escape to in order to play out fantasies of hedonistic freedom. Fowler discovers that to survive, and to stay in Vietnam, he must commit himself to a definite path and purpose in life. He will have to trample over someone and disappoint someone else – and he will have to live with the consequences and his conscience for the rest of his life – but the choice is one he is forced to make.
At the time of release, the film was subjected to censorship in the US by its own main producer Miramax and would have languished in a vault were it not for efforts by director Phillip Noyce and Michael Caine, with support from film critics in the US, to get it released. Fifteen years later, one of the film’s messages – that the US will resort to supporting warlords and favour terrorism and violence resulting in mass deaths if such actions are in its interests – is more relevant than ever as US foreign policy in widely separated countries such as Syria, Iraq, North Korea, the Philippines and Venezuela, in which the forces of thuggish violence and chaos are aided and abetted by Washington, becomes more widely known and criticised.