It doesn’t take much to be “Anti-American” these days. All you have to do is ask a few pertinent questions as to why so many(and varied) people about the globe find this country at best unsympathetic and at worst worthy of killing themselves over the better to stage a terrorist attack. For if you do, the usual “mainstream” suspects will deem you worthy of throwing into that Outer Darkness currently occupied by Susan Sontag, Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal. But as anyone with a long memory (ie. the citizen most dangerous to the status quo)knows, this situation didn’t arise solely in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001. Rather, it’s something that’s been part and parcel of the “mainstream” for quite some time. And the striking new film version of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American will doubtless provide an opportunity for its invocation once again.
Published in 1956, Greene’s novel is set in the waning days of French “Indo-China” — moments before full-bore occupation of the U.S. and the partition of the country into what became known as “North and South Vitnam.” In the foreground is a love triangle involving an ageing “burnt-out case” of a British journalist, his young Vietnamese mistress, and a seemingly naive and idealistic young American who is supposedly involved in a “Humanitarian aide” mission of some sort. But in the wake of his murder, his connections to the C.I.A. are revealed — and with them a eerie foreshadowing of everything that was to transpire in the decades to follow.
In 1958 Joseph L. Mankiewicz made a film of The Quiet American starring Michael Redgrave as the journalist, Georgia Moll as the mistress, and celebrated World War II hero Audie Murphy as the American. Reworking Greene’s story, Mankiewicz made the American genuinely naive — and by and large a dupe of local Communists. Oddly sandwiched between two of his biggest hits, Guys and Dolls and Suddenly Last Summer, Mankiewicz’s film pleased neither Greene fans nor the general public. But it found favor with a young film critic named Jean-Luc Godard who (writing in Arts) declared “it confirms Mankiewicz’s mental agility” and claimed it “in fact, invites comparasion with Jean Giradoux.” Godard went on to cast the actress who played the mistress, Georgia Moll, in the key role of the secretary to Jack Palance’s egomaniacal producer in Contempt — a film shot largely in the highly theatrical Mankiewicz style.
That Mankiewicz would revise Greene’s principle character is no surprise, given the fact that the American “A Picture” moviegoing public would have been astonished to learn of its government’s villainous doings in foreign countries. (The “B Picture” public got the message in Sam Fuller’s China Gate with Angie Dickinson, Gene Barry and Nat King Cole) And that situation persists, so well we have been brainwashed into the belief that the government of the United States is “Good” and operates in the “best interests” of “everyone.” But as director Philillip Noyce and screenwriters Robert Schenkkan and Christopher Hampton are filming Greene’s story in 2002, the history of what came afterwards — the U.S. invasion of Vietnam in the 1960’s and the genocide that came in its wake spreading into Laos, Thailand and Cambodia in the 70’s before this country’s eventual defeat — is unavoidable. Therefore in many ways the love triangle in the foreground becomes this version’s background. It’s very much in keeping with the work of filmmaker whose career began in his native Australia with such hard-hitting dramas as Newsfront, and Heatwave, before the success of the thriller Dead Calm , afforded him the chance to direct such high-priced dreck as Sliver, The Saint, The Bone Collector and (more to the ideological point), the CIA love-letters Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger . Obviously Noyce is seeking to make amends — and he does so handily. However none of this would have seen the light of day had it none been for something quite outside conventional politics — the Academy Award.
Miramax President Harvey Weinstein was full prepared to “bury” The Quiet American as he had so many other films that his company acquired that “just couldn’t find an audience” — because he didn’t permit them to do so. But some critics got to see it anyway, and a buzz about Michael Caine’s performance was started, that grew louder when the film played the Toronto Film Festival. Weinstein has never been able to resist the lure of an Oscar. And as his relentless campaigning snagged a Best Supporting Actor trophy for Caine in The Cider House Rules a few years back, a potential Best Actor nod for The Quiet American couldn’t be shoved aside — necessitating the film’s release. And likewise a Best Supporting for Brendan Fraser. For this seeming “lightweight” known mostly for knockabout comedy show surprising depth and skill here in a very demanding part.
Old Smoothy that he is, Caine sails through the role of Fowler the journalist as elegantly as one would expect. Likewise a lovely young Vietnamese actess Do Hai Yen, embodies the grace and sensuality of Phuong, the girl they both love, with ease. It’s Fraser’s Pyle who stands out. For he makes us believe both his guilelessness in falling for the girl, even while befriending her “protector” Fowler, while at the same time making sure our being duped by his “naivete” in matters of the heart matches his larger (and far more concealed) moral mendacity. The key moment here is a flashback of a scene in which a bomb explodes in a square in downtown Saigon, killing numerous civilians. As Fowler recounts it, he makes note of the fact that this was the moment when he discovered that Pyle spoke Vietnamese like a native — something he had lied about up until then. And rather than help the wounded, Pyle is directing a photographer to take pictures of the bodies. Not at all surprising as he is the one responsible for the bomb — which he and his cronies will blame on the Communists.
But the very best moment comes almost in passing in this scene. For Noyce has Christopher Doyle’s expert camera direct our attention via a medium close shot to Pyle petulantly wiping a bombing victim’s blood off his trouser leg.
If you want an image that embodies America at the turn of the century, that’s it.
But make sure to note that it’s an embodiment of the American government. The American people are, as usual, unheard. They’re too busy being directed to look elsewhere — like Pyle’s photographer. And this act of looking transforms them into that least dangerous of citizens, the Consumer. For the Consumer is just another passive spectator. Safe. Controlled. But Noyce’s film doesn’t engender passivity. And it’s “Anti-American” stand is far from the simplistic one of Godard’s In Praise of Love (which treats Steven Spielberg as if he were Henry Kissinger) Rather, it evokes the “mental agility” of Mankiewicz, to create the film that great writer-director might have made were he alive today — and as angry as I am about the state of the nation and the world it so reflexively bullies.