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Phillip Noyce re-examines what it means to be an American--in times of war

Sightless on the Homefront 

Phillip Noyce re-examines what it means to be an American--in times of war

A friend says that he expects the impending war on Iraq--which now seems equally inevitable and obscene--to be a "high-tech Vietnam." By that I think he means that the invasion will be accomplished with high-tech weapons, and that it could turn into a costly sinkhole for the United States. Yet the phrase also suggests something about the way the war will hit the public imagination.

The image that pops to mind is a high-speed, brutal cartoon or video game. Only, in this instance, the images will be real and will arrive in national living rooms in a ceaseless torrent, thanks to lightweight digital cameras, videophones, and other high-tech facilitators. And this horrifying image-influx could well polarize the country into two angry, bitterly opposed camps within weeks. In the lower-tech era of Vietnam, a similar schism took years to evolve.

Vietnam was known as the first television war for good reason. Television not only brought the war into American homes in an unprecedented manner, but also catalyzed political awareness and rallied protesters opposing the war, which, as many commentators have noted, was ultimately lost on the battleground of public opinion.

In that sense, TV was a far more vital and influential chronicler of Vietnam than either literature or cinema. Those other media--forums of art's ruminations rather than journalism's immediacy--had relatively little impact during the war itself. Their importance belongs, as it were, on either side of the conflict: Novels from before America's peak involvement insinuated the calamity to come. And cinema, in works like Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon (1986) and Full Metal Jacket (1987), produced distanced, aestheticized reflections of the war's trauma well after it ended.

Yet, whether novel, film or TV report, any that challenged the U.S. government's policy were habitually denounced as "anti-American" (as many saner views of the Iraq blitzkrieg are sure to be). The label was thrown at Graham Greene's 1955 novel The Quiet American, which became a favorite of U.S. reporters covering the Vietnam War in the following decade. Now, the same pejorative has come back to haunt the latest film version of Greene's book.

Phillip Noyce's handsome, engrossing movie was ready for an autumn 2001 release, but after the Sept. 11 attacks, Miramax shelved it, reportedly fearing charges that it was anti-American. Only a campaign by its star, Sir Michael Caine, got the film released a year later, and to good effect. Caine's performance, easily his best in recent years, has been widely hailed and seems likely to win him an Oscar nomination this week, just as The Quiet American opens across the country.

The film's release (it opened in select cities in November) has not, to my knowledge, produced howls of outrage that it's anti-American. Yet Miramax's sensitivity may still prove prescient. If U.S. follies abroad inflame world opinion again, and set American against American, the charge will probably be hurled at items far less incisive than this moody, layered film.

Like the novel that inspired it, the movie doesn't deal in obvious polemics. Greene's story takes place in the Vietnam of 1952--when France was struggling to hold onto its colonial empire and America's incursion was still a decade off--yet its real locale is the landscape of the soul. Likewise, its central concerns aren't political but moral, and they play out between two very emblematic protagonists.

Thomas Fowler (Caine), a veteran reporter in Asia (he considers "correspondent" too grand a term for his dogged fact-gathering) for the London Times, lives the life of a dissolute expat, complete with opium pipe and beautiful mistress. Given that opposites attract, it's perhaps inevitable that he quickly develops a friendship with Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), an eager, earnest Bostonian who has just arrived in Saigon with the mission, he says, of helping improve the eye care of the Vietnamese. One does not have to be clairvoyant to sense that the young American is really a CIA operative, or that there's a mote in his own eye.

The movie begins, very memorably, with a lingering shot of the Saigon waterfront as Fowler's melancholy, philosophical voice begins to recount the tale we are about to witness. The mood is that of a classic film noir (albeit in muted blues and grays), and the film maintains it throughout; what we encounter is a very personal, almost hallucinatory Vietnam, refracted through scrims of regret, antipathy and self-deception.

As in Peter Weir's The Year of Living Dangerously, the film that Noyce's most recalls, the hot-house political turmoil here forms a roiling, semi-opaque backdrop to a tight-focus romantic drama. One day when Fowler takes a trip to a northern city (Vietnam is still undivided) where an atrocity has been committed, Pyle follows him--not, it seems, for espionage purposes, but to confess that he has fallen in love with Fowler's young mistress, Phuong (Do Thi Hai Ye).

On the face of it, this is laughable. Pyle has barely met Phuong and yet he's already decided to haul her back to Boston and make a proper woman of her, something he assumes the married Fowler can't or won't do. For his part, Fowler is startled and perhaps a little flattered by Pyle's campaign, yet he acts firmly to resist it.

Given this basic schema, some might object that Phuong has very little voice in the story, making The Quiet American yet another "Vietnam film" that pays scant attention to the Vietnamese. Other viewers may likewise wonder if the Catholic Greene doesn't construct an original-sin trap for his characters that's a bit too pat and dogmatically overdetermined.

Perhaps such criticisms should be granted a basic validity at the outset: Greene's story belongs to a bygone literary era and reflects a settled theological viewpoint that admits no questioning of its own premises. Yet I would argue that both limitations are counterbalanced by the tale's recognition that spiritual imperatives are always closely intertwined with political and psychological ones, and by its astute reading of the complexities of human motivation.

At first glance, Pyle and Fowler seem schematically drawn to represent innocence and experience, idealism and cynicism. In the case of the younger man, that idealism obviously accords with the way Americans see themselves and their actions in the world. In places like Vietnam and Iraq, our campaigns are meant to assure the triumph of good over evil. But what if the oversimplifications and excessive self-regard involved in such a view produce a moral blindness (the film's optical symbolism is hardly for naught) that effectively lead us to do wrong when we think we're doing right?

The film is full of this kind of moral perplexity, all of it built on the most subtle and satisfying of dramatic reversals. When we think we've gotten to the bottom of Fowler or Pyle, we're inevitably surprised to find that there are more levels yet to drop.

Nor do I mean to suggest that the American gets the worst of it. Greene and his cinematic translators (including screenwriter Christopher Hampton and Noyce, whose direction is solid and intelligent) are nothing if not appreciative of the universality of guilt. Fowler's dissoluteness appears even more depraved late in the film than at the beginning, but it also has come to seem naïve rather than knowing. At the same time, we've come to see the presumptuous acquisitiveness behind Pyle's "romantic" fascination with Phuong, as well as the cynicism behind his and his government's intrusion into the tragedy of Vietnam.

As in Greene's novel, the film's essential cultural perspective gives us a European view of America, and if it's not an entirely negative picture, it's not hugely flattering either. It draws attention to our flaws and potentially dangerous weaknesses. While such a view may be, as some will assert, hostile, partial or self-justifying, that doesn't mean it's untrue. At this sad moment in history, I fear the filmgoers most likely to scream "anti-American" at this film are those already beclouded by the self-righteous blindness that The Quiet American so eloquently warns against. EndBlock

  • Phillip Noyce re-examines what it means to be an American--in times of war

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