February 5, 2003

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Taking sides
The Quiet American finally gets to speak for itself.
By Susan Gerhard

PERHAPS IT'S ALL just a grand scheme of Harvey Weinstein's: Organize the entire world into a Graham Greene novel, with naive Americans on one side, puppy-dog eager for cleansing combat in a far, far away place, and jaded Europeans on the other, too aware of war's sinister ramifications to join in – then release a film both sides can really fight over. It would make a killing at the box office and perhaps prevent a killing outside it. At which point, Harvey could just get on the radio, War of the Worlds style, and call the whole thing off. Wouldn't that be fun?

Graham Greene's Quiet American arrives at a cinema near you years after it hit the distribution pipeline, months after its debuts in Los Angeles and New York, and – by the time you read this – either not a minute too soon, or possibly a few minutes too late. Whether or not you think the world needs one, The Quiet American is the boldest cinematic antiwar statement of the year. A transatlantic fight already took place over its release dates (to reprise briefly, this film's fortunes dramatically changed after Sept. 11, 2001: Sir Michael Caine was angered at Miramax's cowardly plan to release the film to disquieted America in sluggish January 2003 instead of prize-happy December 2002 or before; Caine won the battle, and the film, already in distribution in Europe, got an entry into the Academy and top 10 sweepstakes with quick, late '02 releases in Los Angeles and New York). Now a transatlantic fight can take place over its true intentions. Brit writer Anthony Lane, for one, straddled the fence with his praise, saying in the New Yorker that he didn't see the film as particularly anti-American at the moment; the political situation is altogether different now. David Ansen, in Newsweek, countered that the film "couldn't seem more timely."

The Quiet American couldn't be more pointedly allegorical if each character were holding up signs and leading his or her own march. Both Greene's novel and Phillip Noyce's film open with an ending, and an intrigue: a dead American, who used to be a "quiet American," an apparent oxymoron in a landscape of U.S. operatives bragging and drinking their way through a Vietnamese landscape corrupted by colonialism. Pre-Vietnam War, America is just beginning to meddle in "regime change" in the area, and one of its key schemers is American "aid" worker Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), who gains muscle and loses nuance in translation from book to screen. Some of Greene's more acid observations about the antiliterary qualities of America's educated classes are gone; Pyle, on the page, was the constant butt of Greene's jokes, with double entendres floating right by him. On-screen, he retains a key quality, however: a missionary zeal, the fresh blush of book-inspired world saving that leads him down a deadly path, earnestly. More important than the question of who killed him (in both book and film) is the question of why he had to die.

He's dangerously placed himself in one corner of a love triangle, having fallen for Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen), the girlfriend of British journalist Fowler (Michael Caine). Their angles too quickly become clear: Fowler could be seen as "using" Phuong, whom he can't marry but genuinely loves (she's made only slightly less two-dimensional than the way Greene envisioned her); Pyle wants to save her from such a sordid acquaintance. America and Europe piss-mark their territories while Pyle engages in even more subversive cuckoldry with plans to create a "third force" in Vietnam to give people something besides colonialism and communism to choose from – using explosives that kill civilians to do it. The jaded Fowler, who doesn't want to take sides, has to migrate to one corner of the triangle by the film's end. But what Greene and the filmmakers give us is not an ideological treatise on which side is right, but a view of the terrible journey a person of conscience makes when taking sides.

Rescued from cold war deep freeze (Joseph L. Mankiewicz played a cruel trick on Greene by making the American the hero in 1958!), the story has been rebuilt to its original dimensions by screenwriters Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan, together with director Noyce – clawing his way out of the blockbuster hole he'd fallen into with the world of Tom Clancy (Patriot Games et al). If a few of Greene's best jokes on us had to be sacrificed, Wong Kar-wai's cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, gives us at least a few pictures worth a thousand words. It's one thing to scan reports of bodies torn in half by U.S.-sponsored terrorist bombs in Vietnam, but another thing to see them up close, filmed with a mixture of slow motion and understatement that captures the adrenaline rush and abject horror of fresh death. These are, of course, the thousand words we hope we never have to read again.

The Quiet American opens Fri/7 at Bay Area theaters. See Movie Clock, in Film listings, for show times.