REVIEW: "The Quiet American" or "Bowling for Hanoi"
by Brandon Judell
(indieWIRE: 11.22.02) -- To most of the world, the term "quiet American" is an oxymoron. To the late Graham Greene, once considered England's Greatest Living Novelist, "a quiet American" was like a "blue lizard" or a "white elephant." That's a dead one.
Greene's 1955 novel that employs these sentiments takes place in Vietnam, as the French government is losing its foothold. While the French fumble, certain American agencies are authorizing mass slaughter of innocent Vietnamese citizens, all the while blaming the Communists for the atrocities. If these Red-White-and-Blue schemers succeed, photographs of these atrocities will get the Congress and the President to authorize a full-scale war to save the world for democracy..
At the time of the novel's release, Saturday Review warned that "the book will arouse indignation... Some Americans will denounce it as a horrid neutralist attack on our cause in the Cold War."
Greene himself later recalled: "When my novel was eventually noticed in the New Yorker, the reviewer condemned me for accusing my "best friends" (the Americans) of murder since I had attributed to them the responsibility for the great explosion...in the main square of Saigon when many people lost their lives." Greene, who was a reporter in Vietnam, backed up his accusations.
So no wonder he was upset with Joseph Mankiewicz's 1958 take on his book, which turned his cynical anti-Uncle-Sam prose into a rah-rah pro-Americana murder mystery.
And no wonder, that Miramax's once-feisty Weinsteins were reportedly once considering shelving Phillip Noyce's new adaptation of the book, until Michael Caine's performance as the morally flaccid London Times correspondent Thomas Fowler received raves at the Toronto Film Festival. Our favorite brothers were probably asking themselves: "Is this the right time to accuse the American government of manufacturing wars with trumped up charges against various governments?" Does sound a bit too relevant, doesn't it?
And whether you are swayed by the film's sentiments or not, you'll have to agree Mr. Noyce has salvaged his career with his one-two punch of "The Quiet American" and the soon-to-be-released "Rabbit-Proof Fence." Anyone who's viewed "Sliver," "The Saint," and the insultingly ridiculous "The Bone Collector" would never have suspected there was an ounce of integrity or insight left in this Australian native's career. He's proved us wrong, so don't give up on Brian DePalma and Michael Cimino either, folks!
Anyway, moving on to the plot, the tale hinges on a threesome. One day, while sitting at a cafe in Saigon, a London Times reporter named Fowler (Caine) is befriended by the newly arrived, supposedly naive American aid worker, Aiden Pyle (Brendan Fraser). The two eventually hit it off so well that Pyle winds up wooing away Fowler's lovely Vietnamese mistress Phuong (Hai Yen).
But is Pyle really so innocent? And is he really going to marry Phuong? And why is he dead when the film begins? Who would murder such a nice guy? As Fowler notes in the novel: "I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused."
Love, war, deceit, and innocence. What more could you ask for?
Most of the credit of course must go to the screenwriters Christopher Hampton ("Dangerous Liaisons") and Robert Schenkkan ("The Long Ride Home"). They've actually improved on the novel in a few scenes. (But why, oh why, did they have to scissor out the nightclub drag show that got the sailors hot and disgusted Pyle? Maybe they had to cut down on make-up costs?)
Also worthy of mention is Chris Doyle's ("In The Mood For Love") vibrant cinematography and some of John Scott's editing. A few chosen shots could have employed more subtlety, but as the book was eerily foreshadowing of our involvement in Asia, the movie can be seen as a metaphor for Bush's current foreign policies. This might hurt Miramax's beloved Oscar campaigning, or maybe Hollywood will finally live up to its "liberal" labeling and be provocative. But whatever awards this "American" might win or not, there's no denying it's one of the more thought-provoking adult features in theaters right now.