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'The Quiet American'

Caine stands out in 'The Quiet American'

Friday, February 14, 2003

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Credit Michael Caine's Oscar nomination to serendipity and stubbornness. Director Phillip Noyce was in the Ho Chi Minh Museum when he bought a copy of the former leader's prison poetry but discovered a salesperson had put the wrong book -- "The Quiet American" -- into his bag. He re-read the 1955 Graham Greene novel and made a movie that was nearly derailed by Sept. 11 but proves timelier than ever as it dramatizes how America descended into the depths of war a world away.

RATING: R for images of violence, some language

STARRING: Michael Caine, Brendan Fraser

DIRECTOR: Phillip Noyce


"Quiet American" stars Caine as Thomas Fowler, a less than ambitious London Times correspondent stationed in Saigon in 1952. With a wife back in England, Fowler is content to crank out a couple of pieces a year, take his morning tea at the Continental Hotel, smoke his evening opium and be pampered by his young beautiful mistress, Phuong (Do Hai Yen). He considers himself "just a reporter" who offers no point of view on what's percolating around him.

Life for Fowler, his live-in girlfriend and Vietnam itself starts to change with the arrival of a quiet American, Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), a health aid worker from Boston who is instantly smitten with Phuong. Fowler, who faces the prospect of being yanked back to England by the home office, is forced to fight for his mistress and his job, the latter by venturing into the field where he discovers a civilian massacre.

Pyle cautions Fowler, "You know, it's not that easy to remain uninvolved," and the Americans become more and more involved -- covertly and openly. Pyle may not be what he seems and perhaps neither is Fowler, who steps out from behind his typewriter and takes some action, covertly and openly.

On its surface, "Quiet American" is about a love triangle but just below, it's about the tempestuous tug of war for a country, embodied by the woman who symbolizes the spirit of Vietnam. Often clad in white with a flower tucked in her hair, Phuong is the woman caught between the past and present, between outside and inside forces, between love and opportunity.

"Quiet American" spent five weeks shooting in Vietnam and you can almost sense the heat, intense rain and smells that Fowler talks about in his voiceover. Caine is superb, deserving of his Oscar nomination, and Fraser plays an increasingly cunning foil. At first, he seems too much a naive, almost blank do-gooder but he shows his true colors -- choosing a literally explosive situation to declare his romantic intentions -- soon enough.

In interviews, Caine has talked about Miramax's reluctance to release a movie critical of U.S. foreign policy after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Once Caine surmounted that hurdle, he had to convince the studio to slot it in time for Academy Award consideration. His persistence paid off.

I saw "Quiet American" and the documentary "Daughter From Danang" in a two-week period. One spins the clock back to the early '50s, the other is set in the present day, when an Amerasian woman sent to this country as part of "Operation Babylift" in 1975 returns to Vietnam to be reunited with her birth mother.

Together, prophetic fiction and mixed-blessing fact, they bookend a war that remains part of our collective conscience.

Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.

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