Based on a famous novel by Graham Greene, THE QUIET AMERICAN tries to answer the questions how and why the United States entered the Vietnam War. Its answers are not entirely satisfying, however. They leave out several major issues.
THE QUIET AMERICAN stars Michael Caine as Thomas Fowler, a tired British journalist living with a young Vietnamese woman, Phuong, in Saigon in 1952. The French are still fighting the Communists, led by Ho Chi Minh, but the American embassy has been helping the French behind the scenes. Fowler has a wife in England, but she is Roman Catholic and refuses to grant him a divorce.
One day, Fowler meets a young American named Alden Pyle, who is part of an economic aid program from the U.S. Fowler introduces Pyle to his mistress, and Pyle is immediately taken with her exotic beauty. At first, Fowler is amused by Pyle’s attraction, but then he grows worried. He angrily tells Pyle to buzz off, even when Phuong declines Pyle’s declaration of love.
The war throws Fowler and Pyle together again, however. Fowler takes a renewed liking to the charming American, especially when Pyle saves his life. Even so, a letter from Fowler’s wife drastically changes the situation. Fowler then becomes suspicious of Pyle’s role in a plot by American intelligence to support a charismatic Vietnamese general, who decides to lead a new movement to fight both the Communists and the French. The truth is revealed, a tragedy occurs, and Fowler takes drastic action that will change all their lives.
THE QUIET AMERICAN implicates the American CIA in a terrorist bombing in the story that was meant to kill soldiers but ends up killing civilians, including a little baby. Although the movie shows that it was the Communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, who decided to invade South Vietnam, forcing the Americans to increase their presence, it ultimately puts the blame squarely on the U.S.A. for meddling in the political and military affairs of Vietnam. The movie fails to mention, however, the support that the Communists received from despicable, murderous regimes like the Soviet Union and Communist China. Nor does the movie show the fact that, despite the defeat that America suffered in Vietnam, America’s involvement there helped Asian countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan become strong, relatively democratic economic powers. Thus, it can be argued that, without the Vietnam War, which contained Communism for a time, these countries would never have been able to achieve the success that they did. Of course, it remains to be seen whether liberty will actually survive in Southeast Asia and China. There are still totalitarian forces at work in that area of the world, as there are totalitarian forces at work in the United States itself.
As usual, Michael Caine does a bang-up job as the morally ambiguous Fowler. Brendan Fraser is not so compelling as Pyle, however. Part of the problem, though, seems to be the poorly scripted character, who just isn’t believable. Hai Yen as the lovely Phuong also is not so convincing as the elder Fowler’s young mistress. The filmmakers have not succeeded in making these younger characters come alive. They probably should have made these characters older, to give more weight to their story. Also, there is a hole in the plot, in that it should have taken Fowler less time to become suspicious of Pyle. This is so especially when Pyle keeps showing up in military situations, where he demonstrates an ability beyond his character’s alleged background.
Despite these flaws, the filmmakers have succeeded in taking Vietnam back to an earlier time, when nations and political/military leaders would take crucial actions that would have repercussions for many decades later. It may have been more interesting to get even more involved in this atmosphere, instead of reducing the situation to a romantic triangle and a relatively superficial political thriller.
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SUMMARY: THE QUIET AMERICAN tells the story of a middle-aged British journalist in Saigon, Vietnam, who gets involved in a romantic triangle with an American spy, which leads to political murder. This uneven movie has its charms, which include an excellent performance by Michael Caine and plenty of atmosphere, but it takes a humanist, pro-Communist, anti-American slant despite some ambiguity.
(HH, CoCo, APAP, LL, VV, S, A, DD, M) Humanist worldview with some Communist and anti-American elements; about 14 obscenities (including one or two "f" words) and three strong profanities; action, wartime violence includes mortar fire, machine guns, explosions, terrorist bombing with limbs torn off, and assassination; implied adultery, cohabitation before marriage and men enter house of prostitution but no sex or nudity shown; no nudity, but woman's bare back shown from afar in love scene; alcohol use; smoking and opium use; and, lying, deceit, assassination, political manipulation implicitly rebuked.