The Quiet American
Graham Greene's novel of political and military intrigues in French Indo-China in the 1950s, was made once before, in 1958, under mysterious circumstances - it was supposedly financed by a CIA front in order to twist Greene's point of view so that the Brit, instead of the American, was the villain. It has now been remade in its 'correct' form.
The story is told by Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine), world-weary correspondent in Saigon for the London Times, who barely finds himself capable of writing anything anymore as he watches the French rule crumble under the press of Vietnamese nationalism. Fowler, though married to a woman who has stayed in England, has a girlfriend here whom he loves - the beautiful young Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen). They meet the eager American medical aide Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), newly arrived and happy to help the peasants with his ophthalmic medications.
Phuong's older sister, who manages a taxi-dance club where Phuong works, is appalled at her relationship with Fowler, this old man with no prospects for Phuong because his wife will not give him a divorce. She latches onto Pyle as a much more suitable choice. Phuong is the passive centerpiece, who says she loves Fowler but is willing to test Pyle.
But Pyle is not who he seems, and slowly Fowler learns what his mission really is. Pyle is CIA, in fact the head of mission in Vietnam, and he is working with a dissident general to destabilize the country so that the United States can install a friendlier regime. (The film - the novel actually - is amazingly prescient, as we look back over the past fifty years.) As Fowler learns more about Pyle his own interest in his work is renewed, and he begins sending dispatches that describe more accurately the situation in Vietnam. Finally - and this is revealed at the beginning of the film, which is told in flashback - Pyle is murdered in order to stop the 'quiet' American government plan.
Caine has been nominated for an Academy Award for his performance, and as this is written I don't know the outcome; but for me the fine performance here is Fraser's. He trades on his boyish looks and enthusiastic manner, and yet conveys an ominous power that underlies it; we sense the hidden agenda without being able to put our finger on it. The film was directed by the Australian Phillip Noyce, and there is a kind of slackness to it, a lack of rhythm and pace, that undercuts the tension of the story. Over the years Noyce has moved from suspense ("Dead Calm") to simple action ("Patriot Games," "The Bone Collector"), and even his other new film, "Rabbit Proof Fence," shows him turning emotion into melodrama. Here he has flattened what could have been an agonizingly powerful political and personal drama and turned it into just another thriller. Graham Greene deserved better.