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January 31, 2003

Noiseworthy Quiet American slips silently through cinemas

The Quiet American is one of the best movies you'll never see. That's not to accuse you, gentle reader, of being one of those morons who prefer the latest Vin Diesel "thrill ride" to the exclusion of art-house movies. No--Miramax seems inclined to bury American as fast as possible, in order to avoid catching any flack about its "anti-patriotic" sentiments.

Any such sentiments would be the fault of Graham Greene, who wrote the 1955 novel that this film is based on, and who had a habit of seeding his stories with treacherous Americans. People's Exhibit A of this would be Harry Lime, anti-hero of Greene's The Third Man, gleefully selling deadly penicillin on the streets of postwar Vienna (Vietnam?).

This film, based in Vietnam during the mid-1950s, focuses on Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine), an aging British journalist who wishes to spend his life writing articles and sleeping with his beautiful Vietnamese mistress, Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen). It's one of the best performances of Michael Caine's career, and he plays the character with a martini-precise mix of detachment and wearied cynicism. Cracks eventually show in his psychic armor, of course, but even then Caine prevents his role from crumbling into melodrama.

If only his foil had comparable skills. Brendan Fraser plays Alden Pyle, the American of the title, who has apparently come to Vietnam to set up a series of health clinics. As the cliché goes, Pyle seems as American as apple pie: dependable, naïve, and very idealistic. As the movie progresses, however, his idealism assumes an increasingly fanatical edge. Pyle may not just be espousing the wonders of democracy, but trying to spread them in increasingly bloody ways.

To his credit, Fraser plays naiveté and idealism well. It's the darker aspects of his character that elude him. He's no Orson Welles, even if they share similar hair and body types. So when Fraser talks about killing in order to save people, he comes off not so much as a man of deadly convictions than as one of those dull frat boys who think that a few beers qualifies them to talk about politics.

Pyle wants more than freedom for Southeast Asia, however; he's also after Fowler's mistress. The film becomes a competition between the two men, with Phuong stuck in the middle. Do Thi Hai Yen is beautiful but her acting skills are never really put to the test. She's less a character than a plot engine, something that leaves her frustratingly enigmatic at times.

The film's pacing is tight and the shots are crisp. I'm no follower of Dogma 95, that movement meant to strip films down to their purest elements, but it was refreshing to watch something with no obvious CG, no trick shots, no artistic overkill. If anything, The Quiet American struck me as a perfect descendent of those classic espionage films like, well...The Third Man.

So why does Miramax want to kill its own film? Why is it releasing it, with minimal publicity, into only a few theaters?

First and foremost, it's because Harvey Weinstein, head of Miramax, apparently lives and dies by positive publicity. And while more discerning audiences would understand that the film's position on Pyle is not so much anti-American as anti-fanaticism (contrasting Fowler's deliberate distance on all things), Weinstein's probably frightened that other people will miss the point.

He shouldn't be. In fact, the best possible outcome would be if the film actually caused some debate. An overt message of the film, conveyed by its ending newspaper montage connecting the French occupation to the Vietnam War, is that fanaticism eventually destroys the fanatic. At a time when American fanatics of various stripes are about to send hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and American troops to their deaths, it's a message that bears some discussion.

But aside from the film's current relevance to the times, The Quiet American operates as a remarkable thriller to its own right. The solid filming, the wonderful performance by Michael Caine, and the great script all make it worth your while to see...even if the rest of America doesn't.