The Quiet American opens with a beautiful shot of Saigon at night, the light from river boats reflecting off the water like tattered flags waving in the wind. Published in 1955 and set a few years before that, when the French flag still hung over Vietnam, Graham Greene's novel warned us about getting involved with this inscrutable country, but did we listen? And now, just as we're sharpening our knives for another military engagement, here's a brand-new movie version, starring Michael Caine as a London correspondent who, like Graham Greene, has seen it all but knows he will never completely understand it. Delayed for a year after Sept. 11, The Quiet American suggests that our love for exotic things ' foreign women, foreign countries, foreign oil ' may get us in a lot of trouble. But will we listen?
Probably not, but we can perhaps be forgiven for not allowing Greene's message to come through loud and clear. He was writing at a time when the West was sorting out its power relations ' Britain and France on the way down, America on the way up ' and he couldn't see beyond that. A political allegory posing as a love triangle, The Quiet American personifies Vietnam as a woman being handed from one man to another, from Caine's Fowler, who's too old and tired to keep her, to Brendan Fraser's Pyle, a U.S. aid officer who's as young and eager as a puppy. That Pyle is also a CIA operative adds an element of skulduggery to the affair, and when we first meet him he's lying on a slab at the morgue. Blurring the boundary between good and evil, Greene turned the early days of the Vietnam War into a murder mystery.
Not a particularly engrossing murder mystery, mind you. Political allegories don't tend to translate to the big screen very well, and The Quiet American is heavy ' very heavy ' with meaning. The characters don't seem to have lives of their own, especially Do Thi Hai's Phuong, who walks through the movie like a lotus flower floating on the surface of a pond. And Fowler and Pyle vie for her affections in such a gentlemanly way that we lose sight of the passion that's supposed to be driving the story. Directed by Philip Noyce, who managed to wrench entertainment out of a CIA operative in Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, The Quiet American may be too noble for its own good. It could use a dose of old-fashioned schmaltz Ã la Casablanca. Instead, the movie takes its cues from Michael Caine's tired, watery eyes.