- The Washington Times - Friday, February 7, 2003

"The Quiet American," set in Vietnam in 1952 may seem a novelty only if you haven't been around the circuit with movies based on Graham Greene novels.
They were pretty much a fixture of my youth, memorably when directed by Carol Reed: "The Third Man" in 1949 and "Our Man in Havana" in 1959. I also was around when Joseph L. Mankiewicz's adaptation of "The Quiet American" appeared in 1958.
I saw it more than once because the subject matter and atmosphere were distinctive and intriguing, even if the final results seemed far from satisfying or coherent.
Admirers of the remake, directed by Phillip Noyce and co-starring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser as the polemical antagonists originally embodied by Michael Redgrave and Audie Murphy, have been insisting on its enhanced fidelity andpurported timeliness. I don't find either claim persuasive.
Both movies treat the source material with more deference than it probably deserves. Dramatically, "The Quiet American" always has been a thankless case about a burned-out case, an allegorical harangue whose story remains a slave to argumentation.
A good deal of the time, Mr. Greene seems to be arguing with himself, and you're not sure if any characters are needed apart from the author's mouthpiece, the cynical foreign correspondent Thomas Fowler, an English expatriate clinging to the perks and sensual consolations of Saigon, particularly opium and an exquisite young mistress named Phoung.
Mr. Caine projects emotional conviction and a certain dried-out charisma as Fowler, who resents both the youth and the gauche idealism of an American interloper. Mr. Fraser as Alden Pyle, supposedly a privileged son of Boston, arrives in Saigon attached to an embassy medical mission.
Pyle is revealed to be a clandestine agent willing to subsidize terrorism in order to promote the political career of an aspiring Vietnamese strongman whom he envisions as a "third force" superior to the exhausted French and menacing Vietminh, the communist guerrillas.
Ultimately, Fowler lends himself to a communist plot to assassinate Pyle, a double blend of gratification, because it removes a romantic rival while rebuking Yankee political power and influence, paramount sore points with Mr. Greene.
The contemporary screenwriters, Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan, distill a methodical continuity from the novel's patchiness and pontification, and the movie remains absorbing if you take the theme of sexual rivalry and resentment as its driving force.
Despite its fidelity to certain kinds of vice and to Mr. Greene's anti-American prejudices, the new film invents several scenes that weren't in the book, defensibly enough, as a rule. The only blunder is an interlude that allows Mr. Caine to rant at the American legation before taking refuge in a lavatory for a good weep.
No other movies of the late 1950s took an interest in the looming Vietnamese situation, but that distinction didn't prevent the Mankiewicz film from being a semiclassy flop. I think the same fate probably awaits Mr. Noyce's film, despite his tagging on an epilogue that alludes anachronistically to the costs of the U.S. war in Vietnam.
A certain hysteric note accompanied the movie's release officially at the end of 2002 to ensure that Mr. Caine would qualify for another Academy Award race. Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein was accused of trying to suppress the movie, ostensibly because he feared government reaction as the country prepared for war in Iraq.
That accusation would make sense only to people who have never kept tabs on Mr. Weinstein's Democratic Party loyalties or the frequency with which Miramax juggles opening dates.
The accusation really reflects wishful thinking among desperate pacifists who imagine that "The Quiet American" can prove a timely stumbling block to war, owing to its hindsight awareness of the Vietnam "quagmire."
That delusion was remote before the movie opened. It's even more remote now that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has put the United Nations on notice.

** 1/2
TITLE: "The Quiet American"
R (Occasional profanity, sexual candor and graphic violence, including depictions of wartime combat and urban terrorism; allusions to opium use)
Directed by Phillip Noyce. Screenplay by Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan, based on the novel by Graham Greene.
100 minutes

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