Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:19 pm 
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Elegant remake of Graham Greene novel has stunning relevance

Phillip Noyce's new version of Graham Greene's "The Quiet American" goes well beyond the 1955 book as a forceful and timely political statement. Though the themes are the same in the new movie, the book dealt more in ambiguities, casting great suspicion on the Americans' early involvement in Vietnam and its motives, while in Noyce's movie the suspicion turns to certainty. It's clear quite early on that the Americans are up to no good.

This filming of Graham Greene's novel is a powerful reversal of the 1958 Hollywood adaptation by Joseph Mankiewicz. Mankiewicz's effort, made when US involvement in Vietnam was still in its early stages, was actually stage-managed by the CIA's Edward Lansdale (the force behind the events of the novel if not the original of Alden Pyle, Greene's young "quiet" American CIA man -- Brendan Fraser in the new movie). The 1958 movie made Greene's stand-in, Thomas Fowler, wind up as a basket case and turned the CIA man, Alden Pyle, into a hero. This time Graham Greene's original perceptions are restored -- and then some.

Pyle is no innocent bumbler here, as he seems in the book. He may appear well meaning at first, but that soon turns out to be cover. The Pyle Brendan Fraser gives us is ruthless, dangerous, and well aware of what he is doing. When Pyle steals Fowler's Vietnamese mistress Phoung, and Fowler realizes what Fraser's purpose in the country is -- to move in a puppet regime and make it look like the communists are guilty of atrocities -- the jaded English newsman becomes so engaged that, as we eventually see in a series of flash-forwards of news pages, he will later become a crusading correspondent covering the dirty side of the US war in Vietnam.

Noyce's "Quiet American" is a stunning effort in more ways than one.

The movie begins with the two artists who, in collaboration with Noyce, have made it not only timely and political but also beautiful. The opening scene is a deep dark blue view of Saigon harbor at night with soft lights floating on it photographed by the wonderful cinematographer, Christopher Doyle. As we gaze upon this lovely image, we hear a voiceover from the book read by Michael Caine. The reading is fresh and arresting. A mature master of the art of cinematic underplaying, Caine never lets us sense anything weary or tired in the way he plays the weary, tired London Times correspondent, Thomas Fowler. In Doyle and Caine we have two movie men at the top of their game. Caine we know from dozens of fine performances. Noyce's fellow Australian Doyle we know especially from his stunning cinematography for Hong Kong "auteur" Wong Kar Wai. He also filmed "Rabbit Proof Fence."

Phillip Noyce emerges from a creditable, but not so distinguished background. He directed a series of sometimes belligerent big-star Hollywood thrillers during the last decade, chiefly "Dead Calm" (1989), "The Saint" (1991) "Patriot Games" (1992), "Clear and Present Danger"(1994) and "The Bone Collector" (1999). He has revealed a much more personal and committed side with this film and the equally outspoken "Rabbit Proof Fence," the latter as much a denunciation of Australian colonialism and racism as "The Quiet American" is of the US brands of those commodities. You could hardly have predicted this turn from the earlier work. It's as if Noyce has decided to pay his dues; but maybe he had these bees in his bonnet all along. The screenplay is by the playwright Christopher Hampton, who wrote the screenplays, notably, for "Dangerous Liaisons" (1988) and "Total Eclipse" (1995).

If you choose to remain human, someone says halfway through the movie, sooner or later you have to take sides, and that's what Fowler is forced to do and what the movie itself does. The new version doesn't erase Pyle's heroism. Again, he saves Fowler's life when they are caught in a watchtower in the north. But there is a self-righteous, threatening air about Fraser's version of Pyle, whereas the 1958 movie had him played by the charismatic war hero Audie Murphy -- and in that version, he IS the hero and the communists are the villains. In this one, the communists barely figure and Pyle gradually becomes so much the villain that we feel no pang when he is gone.

The original story emerged from a shocking series of events Graham Greene observed while vacationing in Vietnam, which constitute the pivotal sequence of the present movie. As an informative article by H. Bruce Franklin in The Nation has recently explained, Greene was suspicious of the way a car bombing in a Saigon square was reported (by a CIA-collaborating New York Times reporter) as a "gruesome" act of "terrorism" by the Vietminh. The American press traced the violence to Ho Chi Minh, but the anti-communist warlord Trinh Minh Thé had actually claimed credit for it. How did "Life" magazine happen to have a photographer on the scene? Greene wondered who had supplied Thé with the explosives.

His novel provided the answer: it was Alden Pyle -- i.e., the CIA. The movie makes clear that the brutal Thé is set up and funded by the US, as the US actually set up Ngo Dinh Diem, with young Pyle directing things behind the pose of being a medical attaché curing trachoma. The plastic he claims has been shipped in for eyeglass frames is for Thé's explosives. Pyle runs in directing a photo shoot of the hideous bombing in fluent Vietnamese because he planned the whole thing. The CIA is creating grounds for US entry into the war the French were losing, and pretending it's out to stop communism, when the real aim is control of the region. For "communism," read "WMD's," look at the planted evidence, and you've got a parallel picture of our current situation. Greene's 1955 novel was prophetic, and so is this new movie.

The irony of the effort to suppress the movie in the US (as H. Bruce Franklin has pointed out) is that the way the release of Noyce's "The Quiet American" was delayed for political reasons from late 2001, when it was originally to come out, until Michael Caine forcibly used his influence to get it a two-week run in New York and L.A. the end of last year, and now a general US release, means that American audiences are seeing parallels between the start of one war and the push toward another that they wouldn't have grasped a year ago. Those of us who have been looking a little deeper lately into the history of American efforts abroad may find "The Quiet American" extremely relevant.

But this is not a piece of agitprop. There's a quietude and elegance about it, enhanced by Caine's wonderfully composed, serene characterization and Christopher Doyle's stunning visuals. The big spaces of Fowler's flat stay with you, and the faces of Phoung (Do Thi Hai Yen) and her sister (Pham Thi Mai Hoa); the dance club; and above all, the square that's bombed and the helpless, maimed victims there. One supposes that the Vietnamese know how to stage that sort of thing. They've seen enough of it.

February 28, 2003

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