Emotionally and politically complex beyond what most filmmakers would dare attempt -- and transporting in a way that vividly recreates the tastes, the smells, the very character of 1950s Vietnam -- "The Quiet American" is a pungent, powerful, psychologically spellbinding film about a aged British reporter caught up in a love triangle and in the multifaceted intrigue that led the country into two decades of war.
Michael Caine, in what is arguably the most potent, unforgettable and instinctive performance of his busy career, stars as Thomas Fowler, a disillusioned London Times reporter whose only remaining passions are his attachment to life in Vietnam and his love for his beautiful, fragile young mistress named Phuong (Hai Yen), a former taxi dancer at a Saigon nightclub.
After years of skating by on occasional submissions to his newspaper, Fowler is trying to avoid being recalled to England, by returning to the front lines of the communist uprising, when he meets Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), an idealistic aid worker fresh from America who befriends Fowler but falls in love with Phuong.
"I should have realized," Caine offers in his sparse, insightful, slightly melancholy voice-over, "that to someone like Pyle, saving a country and saving a woman would be the same thing."
But is there something more to this seemingly humble American? Fowler begins to wonder when piecing together details about the young man who carries a book called "Dangerous to Democracy" and argues that neither the colonial French nor the communists should rule the country.
When Fowler takes a trip into rebel territory for a confrontational interview with the breakaway leader of a volatile, brutal third faction, he finds Pyle, ostensibly working with the Red Cross. When Pyle asks for a ride back to Saigon, he saves Fowler's life, springing into curiously stealthy and strategically adept action as they come under attack on the road at night.
Taking place in a dangerous civil climate where the sound of a grenade going off a few blocks away is nothing more than a hiccup in conversation, "The Quiet American" soon finds terrorism, espionage, moral ambiguity and other precursors of the future U.S.-led war enveloping Fowler, who "had hidden so long behind a typewriter."
Directed by Philip Noyce (who struck gold twice this year, also helming "Rabbit-Proof Fence") and adapted from Graham Green's acclaimed novel (which was eerily precognative of the Vietnam War) by Christopher Hampton ("Dangerous Liaisons") and Robert Schenkkan, the film opens with two cinematic errors in judgment: 1) A beautiful, atmospheric shot of small-boat river traffic on the edge of Saigon, in which the night sky is lit by battle explosions in the distance, is ruined by the film's intrusive, distracting opening credits; and 2) the prologue gives away a major plot development that would have been better left to come as a shock at the end.
These problematic narrative choices are, however, overshadowed by the fact that the brilliant Caine is aching yet understated as the weary but galvanized Fowler, and that Fraser plays Pyle with a seamless fusion of feigned naivete, genuine idealism, hints of a clandestine ulterior agenda and misguided love for Phuong.
Just as importantly, Noyce's direction never missteps again, and his attention to detail makes every frame of the movie sumptuously vibrant. His point-of-view shots place you directly in the path of conflicted emotions in the romantic subplot. The stillness Fowler creates around himself becomes all the more resonant when it's shattered by a car-bombing across the street from the European hotel where he sips his daily tea on the veranda. And Noyce's choice to linger on the carnage that follows has a visceral effect as Fowler is shaken to his core, deciding he can no longer remain a neutral observer.
This sets the stage for a conspiracy-fueled climax that thunders with fear and danger, aided in no small part by a spine-tingling score from composer Craig Armstrong.
As a political thriller, "The Quiet American" is taut and stunning. But even in its most intrigue-driven moments, the intensity of personal resolve -- the substance of the characters hearts and souls -- is what carries the movie.
Run time: 101 mins
In Theaters: Friday 7th February 2003
Box Office USA: $12.8M
Distributed by: Miramax Films
Production compaines: Miramax Films, Intermedia Films, Mirage Enterprises
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 87%
Fresh: 132 Rotten: 19
IMDB: 7.1 / 10
Director: Philip Noyce
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