"Never underestimate a patriot."
The Quiet American is a story of the Vietnam we never get to see: the one before the war with the Americans, the one before it became "'Nam." It is also the story of how innocence can be dangerous and of what it takes to spur an apathetic man into action.
Facts of the Case
The Quiet American is set in 1952 Vietnam, near the end of the First Indochina War, an era of fighting between the communist government of Ho Chi Minh, rival factions, and the French, who occupied the country for a long period before World War II. At this time, the United States had yet to enter the country in any official capacity other than to offer medical and economic aid.
Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine, Alfie, Educating Rita, The Cider House Rules) is a 50-something British journalist who has been living on assignment in Saigon for so long that he considers it his home. He lives with his 20-something mistress, Phuong, whose family does not approve of their relationship because Fowler has a wife in England and therefore cannot give Phuong the security she needs.
Fowler considers himself an observer—he reports what he sees, but he doesn't get involved. So when he meets Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser, With Honors, Gods and Monsters, The Mummy), an American medical aid worker with an abundance of optimism and naïveté, Fowler is a little put off by him. Nonetheless, he enjoys Pyle's admiration and takes him under his wing a bit, showing him around the city and introducing him to Phuong.
The two run into each other in the northern Phat Diem while Fowler is chasing a story. At first, Pyle claims to be there coincidentally, helping with a local outbreak of trachoma, but he soon admits he's followed Fowler because he needs to tell him something. Apparently, Pyle is in love with Phuong and wants to marry her and give her the security she desires. When he visits the couple to tell Phuong, she turns him down, but Fowler, fearful of losing her, is prompted to write his wife and ask for a divorce, although he holds out little hope of her compliance.
The two men meet again, this time when Fowler is attempting, unsuccessfully, to arrange an interview with General Thé, the leader of one of the warring factions. Oddly, Pyle has the right connections and is able to get Fowler in. Once back in Saigon, Fowler continues to investigate Thé and the pieces start to fall into place, but they form a disturbing picture.
There's not much I can write about this movie without spoiling it for you, if it hasn't been already by other sources. I was reluctant to summarize it in any detail, because the build up of clues and the suspense are what make it so enjoyable, but I wanted to give you a sense so you would be encouraged to watch it and fill in the holes for yourself. I hope I found the right balance. So instead of discussing the story anymore, I will stick to the other aspects of the movie, trusting that you will believe me when I say the plot is much better than I've made it out to be.
I've awarded the acting a perfect score. It's rare for me to find a movie that doesn't include at least one performance with which I am not fully satisfied. If the lead actors are superb, the supporting cast usually leaves something to be desired, and vice versa. But this time, I was overwhelmed by talent; I can't find a single thing to complain about. And in a movie that co-stars Brendan Fraser, that's quite an accomplishment.
I would be remiss if I didn't single out Michael Caine for his performance. As he discusses in his portion of the commentary, his aim was not for viewers to think what a good job he's doing acting the part of Thomas Fowler; instead his aim was for viewers to not even realize that he isn't Thomas Fowler. He wanted to do such a good job that we would forget he was even acting at all. And he succeeded masterfully.
The cinematography in this movie is stunning. But then I'm not sure that's so hard to accomplish when filming in a country as naturally beautiful as Vietnam. Regardless, The Quiet American is gorgeous, skillfully lit and colored; it draws you into this other world and this other time.
And, thankfully, the 2.35:1 anamorphic video transfer allows the beauty to shine through flawlessly. I saw nary an error, the blacks were black, and the colors were rich. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is not quite of the same high quality—the levels between dialogue and sound effects were a bit off and I found myself changing the volume entirely too often. But otherwise, the track meets the standards I would expect for a recent release.
The most important bonus feature on this disc is the audio commentary by director Phillip Noyce; actors Michael Caine, Brendan Fraser, and Tzi Ma; executive producer Sydney Pollack; producers Staffan Ahrenberg and William Horberg; co-writer Christopher Hampton; and interpreter and advisor to Phillip Noyce Tran An Hua. This commentary is one of the best I've ever heard, with entertaining anecdotes and informative stories about the making of the movie, the original book, the history of Vietnam, and so on. It's well worth your while to listen to this track, which will give you some perspectives on the movie that you may not have discovered on your own.
Also included on the disc are:
• The Sundance Channel's "Anatomy of a Scene," which
focuses on a key scene
Don't be confused by the setting into thinking this is a war movie. Coming from someone who has enjoyed very few war movies in her lifetime, believe me, it's not. Instead it's a character study, a mystery, and even a little bit of a love story.
However you choose to classify it, The Quiet American is not to be missed, by anyone. I fully recommend this for a purchase.
Having been tried at the Hague and found innocent of the war crimes of which it was accused, The Quiet American is free to go.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Director Phillip Noyce; Actors Michael Caine, Brendan Fraser, and Tzi Ma; Executive Producer Sydney Pollack; Producers Staffan Ahrenberg and William Horberg; Co-Writer Christopher Hampton; and Interpreter and Advisor to Phillip Noyce Tran An Hua
Review content copyright © 2003 Elizabeth Skipper; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.