The Quiet American--the timely 2002 adaptation of Graham Greene's 1955 novel--is a film for grown-ups. A caustic critique of European colonialism and American cowboy politics in Vietnam, The Quiet American puts forward a tart and wholly engrossing blend of shadowy intrigue and politics both global and personal.
In an ideal role, Michael Caine once again indelibly inhabits a space of sad, other-side-of-middle-age disillusionment. Caine plays Thomas Fowler, the British foreign correspondent whose only credo is "I don't get involved." Of course, Fowler is already inextricably invested in the fate of Vietnam, which is his meal ticket and the home of his eye-raisingly young extra-marital paramour Phong (Do Thi Hai Yen). Metaphorically, Vietnam is also the lover Fowler can never leave (he says of Phong--though he might just as well be speaking of Vietnam--"If I lost her, for me, it would be the beginning of death"). This counter-productive love-lust holds true with Phong, who Fowler hopefully exploits while suspecting she doesn't need him half as much as he needs her.
Into this netherworld comes Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), the avuncular and naive "quiet" American of the title. Ostensibly a Medical Aid worker but in fact hiding a bevy of dangerous secrets, Pyle befriends Fowler and carefully offers access to the places and people Fowler needs to justify his continued presence in Vietnam with short bursts of news to the London Times. But Pyle also falls for Phong, and adopts her as a personal project. A struggle for Phong and Vietnam itself ensues.
The screenplay--by playwright Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liasons) and actor Robert Schenkkan--benefits tremendously from Greene's gifts for plot structure and sly humor (Pyle's name--alluding to GI Joe war correspondent Ernie Pyle--subtly implicates Fowler by ugly reflection: all three are "observers" who got fatally involved in their subjects). But the sharpness of this fresh adaptation should not be undervalued. Hampton and Schenkkan select the rich narration judiciously and arrange flawless dialogue with pockets of dark, dry wit.
Along with the writers, director Phillip Noyce (Rabbit-Proof Fence) capitalizes on the filmic form to confuse wartime espionage with the romantic battle of Pyle and Fowler. Heavy shelling accompanies the scene in which Pyle announces his love for Phong, while a few scenes later, when Pyle shows up for a sitdown to announce the same to Phong, Fowler taunts, "Fire away." Noyce also supervises lush photography of both Vietnam and Australian interiors, photographed by Wong Kar-Wai's right-hand man Christopher Doyle.
Fraser may be more effective in his external guise than his internal truth, but he's generally effective. Caine's bleary-eyed, barely hidden vulnerability proves the idea that enough potent conflict can reside in any one character to power a drama. Do, who specializes in soulful silence (as in The Vertical Ray of the Sun), does marvelous work, but embodies the film's one major failing: while The Quiet American understands all too well the misguided sins of incestuous international paternalism, it fails to convincingly flesh out the Vietnamese point of view, instead offering abstractions of violent resistance and passive ambivalence.
Still, The Quiet American--delayed a year by the post-9/11 "New Sensitivity"--is the movie of the moment, fearlessly targeting the arrogance and self-delusion of any one country's confident, self-serving interference in the development of another. The Quiet American poetically sums up this message in Fowler's pregnant, rueful reading to Pyle of this sample from "Dipsychus" by the British poet Arthur Clough: "I drive through the street, and I care not a d-mn,/The people they stare, and they ask who I am/And if I should chance to run over a cad/I can pay for the damage, if ever so bad."