Film: The Old European

Anti-Americanism, like the poor, will always be with us. We are hated because we are rich and powerful—and hopeful. Not so the “old Europeans” of Donald Rumsfeld’s pithy formulation (which made so many people angry because it was so obviously true—telling the truth is always the fastest way to stir up trouble). Unlike us, they have nothing whatsoever in their power, and they’re too decadent to do anything about it but snipe from the sidelines: How silly to believe that you have it in your power to make the world over again! Have you ever heard anything more immature? Who but an American would dare think such thoughts? Who, indeed.

It stands to reason that this particular brand of anti-Americanism would sooner or later find its way into a big-budget movie, though I confess to having been taken aback that an Australian turned out to be the principal purveyor. But Phillip Noyce’s The Quiet American is Australian only to the extent that its director is from Australia. The film is based on the 1955 novel by Graham Greene, an America-hater of long standing, and the script, coauthored by English playwright Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons), is a mostly faithful visualization of the book, deviating from Greene’s original only to the extent of underlining its political points in a blacker shade of ink. Indeed, the only unpredictable thing about The Quiet American is that it is—up to a point—a very good movie.

Greene’s lesser novels aren’t as widely read as they used to be, and so most readers will probably not recall that The Quiet American is the story of Fowler (Michael Caine), a burnt-out opium-smoking British journalist holed up in Saigon with Phuong (Do Hai Yen), his uncomfortably young mistress, whom he cannot marry because his English wife won’t divorce him. (Yes, she’s Catholic—what did you expect from Graham Greene?) One fine day, Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), a young American clad in the whitest of summer suits, strolls into Fowler’s life and upsets it in every possible way. Pyle claims to be on a mission to rid Vietnam of an especially virulent eye disease, but he turns out to be a CIA agent on a mission to rid Vietnam of Communism by any means necessary, including the use of terrorism against large numbers of innocent civilians. (I know, I know, but like I said, it’s Graham Greene.) While in Saigon, Pyle acquires yet another mission, which is to relieve Fowler of his mistress. (Spoiler alert!) Blasted out of his torpor by Pyle’s murderous meddling, Fowler rats him out to the Viet Cong, who promptly assassinate the agent, and just as promptly metamorphoses into a preternaturally energetic reporter who spends the next decade cabling front-page stories about the evils of American interventionism back to the home office in London.

As is so often the case, The Quiet American is disserved by so blunt a summary of its plot, for the film is mainly concerned with the relations between its three principal characters, and the overlapping moral dilemmas arising out of the fact that Fowler, quite to his surprise, likes Pyle. He warms to the younger man’s energy and idealism, two qualities that long ago slipped through his trembling fingers, and he’s oddly touched by the forthright way in which Pyle makes his play for Phuong, first making a point of telling Fowler that he has fallen in love with her. Too old and scared to be chivalrous, Fowler clearly feels a grudging admiration for Pyle—but loses it in the course of a single afternoon when he discovers that his naively idealistic young friend has conspired to set off a car bomb in a crowded Saigon street and blame it on the Viet Cong.

This is where The Quiet American turns stupid. Up to that point, the film’s close focus on the human motivations of Fowler, Pyle, and Phuong yields countless rewards, not least because all three performers are perfectly cast. We see and hear a lot of Michael Caine (he’s the narrator), and every moment that the camera lingers on him is a moment well spent. Caine is a narrowly limited actor, capable of conveying only one emotion—disillusion—but nobody does it better, and he’s never done it better than here, not even in A Shock to the System. He is Old Europe to the life, rotted from inside out by a lifetime of overindulgence in the mortal sin of despair. To gaze into his tired, too-knowing eyes is to behold the skull beneath the skin.

I had no idea that Fraser could act, but the mere fact that he’s capable of holding his own with an old pro like Caine is proof of his abilities. To be sure, Fraser’s part is simpler, Alden Pyle being a paper-doll cliché—he’s Daisy Miller in Saigon, armed with plastic explosives—but Fraser brings the role to unexpectedly subtle and complex life, and for most of the film’s length, it is easy to believe in Pyle’s self-deluded good intentions. As for Do Hai Yen, she has only to be young and beautiful and deeply in love with Fowler, but she does all these things with no small amount of grace.

In every other way but the most important one, The Quiet American is an admirable piece of filmmaking, tautly directed (it is 118 minutes long but seems shorter, a sentence I rarely have occasion to use in this space), and gorgeously photographed on location in Vietnam. Alas, I am forcibly reminded simply by virtue of typing those last words that The Quiet American takes place not in the abstract world of art for art’s sake but in the arena of politics, and that its artfulness has been pressed into the service of an ignoble cause. For no matter how compelling the human drama it enacts, The Quiet American is all too plainly intended to make Americans look evil. Anyone who watches it in ignorance of the actual historical context of the fictional events it portrays will come away convinced that as early as the mid-1950s, the CIA was cynically butchering hordes of hapless Vietnamese civilians in order to keep the Communists from taking over South Vietnam. One need not be a retrospective supporter of the Vietnam War to be angered by such JFK-style fact-twisting, or by the way in which Noyce and Hampton make the Viet Cong out to be the good guys, tough and noble and caring.

Still, that wasn’t what irked me most about The Quiet American. What really got me was the timing of its release. The film was originally set to come out in the fall of 2001, but Miramax not unreasonably decided that after September 11, no one would care to see a blatantly anti-American film, so it was shelved. Instead, it was sent into American theaters at the height of the debate over whether the United States should go to war to remove Saddam Hussein from power, and it goes without saying that the critics lined up to kiss Phillip Noyce’s feet. Roger Ebert, that walking compendium of conventional left-liberal wisdom, thinks that The Quiet American “suggests a world view more mature and knowing than the simplistic pieties that provide the public face of foreign policy.” In fact, it is Ebert and Noyce and Hampton—and, lest we forget, Graham Greene—who are handing out the simplistic pieties, and by doing so they have contrived, not for the first time, to do near-fatal damage to what should have been a very good movie indeed.

Terry Teachout

By

Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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