Foreign Affairs

Greene acres: Brendan Frasier and Michael Caine are both friends and rivals in fifties Vietnam in The Quiet American.Photo: Phil Bray

The opening shots of The Quiet American, based on the Graham Greene novel and set in Saigon in 1952, establish the mood that will carry throughout the movie. Delicate boats at night appear as though glimpsed through a moist scrim of memory; but in these same waters a body will soon wash up. The body belongs to Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), an American who had been stationed in Vietnam ostensibly to provide medical aid but who, in fact, was a covert CIA operative. Over these dark images, we hear the ruminative voice of Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine), a Times of London reporter who tells us that after a season in Vietnam, “you can hardly remember your name or what you’re escaping from.” Fowler has the plangent look of someone who is fully inured to loss; the heat and the torpor have brought out a fatalism in him. The only thing that sparks his rheumy eyes is his young mistress Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen), a graceful beauty who seems unperturbed by their vast difference in age. Fowler is supremely detached, except for his love for Phuong. Beautifully directed by Phillip Noyce, the film, which flashes back from those opening sequences, is a full experience, a love story and a murder mystery that expands into a meditation on the deep deceptions of innocence.

At first, the world-weary journalist and the newly arrived, gung-ho American are fast friends. When Pyle declares his love for Phuong – and even later on, when Pyle’s real mission in Vietnam is revealed – an abiding affection still persists between the two men. Fowler is impressed, even a bit tickled, by Pyle’s outright wooing of his mistress; and yet when he says that losing her “will be the beginning of death,” you believe him. Caine, in one of his finest performances, shows us the desperation beneath Fowler’s practiced politeness and cynicism. In the end, following a CIA-engineered explosion in Saigon Square that is blamed on the Communists and that kills more than 30 civilians, he goes against Pyle. He does so because, finally, this unbrave, noncommittal man must take a stand or he will come apart. But we are made to wonder, as does Fowler, how much his righteousness has to do with eliminating a rival.

The Quiet American has a script by Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan that is much more faithful to Greene’s 1955 novel than the 1958 Hollywood version starring Michael Redgrave and Audie Murphy – a film Greene hated because, among other things, it made Pyle into an independent operative and thus toned down the book’s anti-Americanism. Noyce’s film was reportedly withheld from distribution by Miramax for over a year because, after 9/11, its ideological edge was deemed too controversial. It’s true that the movie is politically unsettling. But I wonder if the anti-American angle, which Noyce reinforces at the end with a montage of newspaper headlines blaring the U.S. escalation of the war, isn’t a bit of a red herring. What keeps the film from falling into agitprop is precisely its fairness toward characters who, in heavier hands, might have remained stock villains (or heroes). Even more so than the novel, the film is about the dangerousness of someone who, like Pyle, is essentially an idealist. He symbolizes the American who truly believes his adventurism is for the greater good.

Brendan Fraser is a touch too callow in the role, but his bounding, goodhearted openness has its complexities: It gives the miseries Pyle sets in motion a truly troubling resonance. The film suggests that both Pyle and Fowler are idealists; that each needs something in the other man in order to feel fully alive. For Pyle, it’s his friend’s mistress – Phuong is a glimmering embodiment of the Vietnamese people he believes he is trying to save. For Fowler, Pyle is a guileless beguiler, and however much he despises Pyle’s interventions, he stands abashed before the young man’s ardor. Pyle saves Fowler’s life at one point, during an attack on a watchtower, and yet Fowler can’t return the favor. In the end, for him, murder is murder – the explosion in Saigon Square has taught him that – and the only way to remain human is to take sides.

Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her affects some people very deeply, while others, like me, find it high-grade kitsch. The film features male actors far more than females – something of a novelty for Almodóvar – and yet ultimately it is about that old mainstay: the ineffable mysteriousness of women. Benigno (wonderfully played by Javier Cámara) is a gentle male nurse who is devoted to his patient, Alicia (Leonor Watling), a ballet student he used to spy on before an auto accident left her in an irreversible coma. In the same hospital is Lydia (Rosario Flores), a bullfighter, also comatose. She is regularly visited by Marco (Dario Grandinetti), a husky travel-guide author who was involved with her before her accident in the bull ring. The two men, so dissimilar on the surface, are linked by their vigilance. The most evocative (and funny) idea in the movie is that they get along better with their women than most wide-awake couples get along with each other. They talk to the ladies as if they could still hear and understand, and Benigno, for one, believes in miracles.

Almodóvar is more playful when he’s making movies about women (or transvestites or transsexuals). The men here tend to bring out in him a dull gravitas. The essence of the film’s story line is a lot creepier than Almodóvar allows for; there’s something almost fetishistic about the way he savors the immutability of the women. It’s as if they had become comatose so that the two men could be soul mates. I’ll say this much: It’s certainly a novel approach to male bonding.

James Bond is tortured by the North Koreans and abandoned by his own people in Die Another Day, but in every other respect, right down to the Aston Martins and Halle Berry’s bikini (think Ursula Andress), it’s the same old Bond. The chief bad guy is the usual crazy billionaire, who in this instance has developed some kind of space-borne solar reflector. (Think SMERSH meets Greenpeace.) This series is in its fortieth year; it might be nice to see Bond battle a readily identifiable, real-world villain for a change. There’s certainly no shortage.

The Quiet American
Directed by Phillip Noyce; Starring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser.
Talk to Her
Directed by Pedro Almodóvar; starring Javier Cámara and Dario Grandinetti.

Foreign Affairs