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Film Critic John Powers

Film critic John Powers reviews The Quiet American starring Michael Caine.

05:51

Other segments from the episode on February 14, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 14, 2003: Interview with Matt Matt Groening; Interview with Al Jean and Mike Reiss; Interview with Alf Clausen; Interview with Julie Kavner; Interview with Harry…

Transcript

DATE February 14, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

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Review: New Michael Caine film "The Quiet American"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

Michael Caine received an Academy Award nomination for his starring role in
"The Quiet American," adapted from the novel by Graham Greene. Caine plays a
veteran British journalist living in Saigon before the start of the Vietnam
War. Brendan Fraser co-stars. Film critic John Powers has a review.

JOHN POWERS reporting:

A couple of years ago in Ho Chi Hinh City, I was heading up Dong Khoi, the
legendary downtown street, that, like a happy love affair, begins at a hotel
and ends at a church. A six-year-old boy followed me crying (foreign language
spoken). I was puzzled until he forced a book into my hands, a smeary,
bootleg paperback of "The Quiet American," the 1955 novel that became famous
for predicting the US disaster in Vietnam before it had even begun. (Foreign
language spoken) was Graham Green. A few days later in Hanoi, I heard that
Phillip Noyce had just finished shooting part of "The Quiet American" there.
I was surprised, for I wondered who would want to see it. But as we move
toward war, the movie feels more relevant than it would have at any point in
the last quarter century.

You see, its title character, Alden Pyle, is a quintessentially American type,
the likeable do-gooder whose actions show how much damage can be done by those
convinced they're on the side of the angels. The story's set in 1950s
Vietnam, when Saigon was still Saigon. It focuses on Thomas Fowler--that's
Michael Caine--an English reporter who wants little more than to live out his
days with his mistress Phuong, played by lovely Do Thi Hai Yen, who can't act
a lick. Suddenly, his romance is threatened by the arrival of Alden Pyle,
played by cartoon handsome Brendan Fraser, a seemingly naive American
optometrist who we gradually come to see in a very different way.

As the two men battle for Phuong--Western artists love to portray Asia as a
woman--it becomes clear that she embodies a bigger historical issue. And here
Pyle and Fowler have it out.

(Soundbite of "The Quiet American")

Mr. MICHAEL CAINE ("Thomas Fowler"): Tell me that you don't mean any of this.
Tell me that you were only obeying orders. Or tell me that after what you saw
in the square, those children who did nothing and hurt no one, tel me that you
were so confused and horrified at how brutal and insane these actions are.
Tell me how your love for Phuong has caused you to have some doubts.

Mr. BRENDAN FRASER ("Alden Pyle"): It is because of Phuong that I am even
more determined. Let's just look at Phuong, this beauty, this daughter of a
professor, taxi dancer, mistress of an older European man. Well, that pretty
well describes the whole country, doesn't it? Look, Thomas, we are here to
save Vietnam from all of that. What happened in the square today makes me
sick, but in the long run I'm going to save lives.

POWERS: In a way "The Quiet American" is a double act of restitution. First,
for the original 1958 adaptation, which enraged Green by flipping the story so
that Pyle was the hero, not a villain. Second, for director Noyce, who's
making his way back to serious filmmaking after years of doing Tom Clancy
thrillers with Harrison Ford. Perhaps constrained by his regained
earnestness, Noyce has produced a film that for all its solidity feels muffled
and over-reverential. It's professional, not passionate. I kept wishing it
had more of Green's acrid intensity, which always preferred struggling sinners
to the untroubled devout.

Still, the movie holds us thanks to the ravishing cinematography of Chris
Doyle, who shoots Asia better than anyone on Earth, and the work of its two
lead actors. Though a bit too grandfatherly for the part, Caine deserves his
Oscar nomination, both for his magnificent voiceover and for an explosive
scene at the US Embassy, where Fowler rages like King Lear. If the underrated
Fraser is less convincing as Pyle, this is because Pyle is an idea, not a man.
Still, he makes us feel the queasy darkness lurking behind that square jaw and
all-American smile.

When I read Green's novel as a kid, I was awed by how worldly and wise it
seemed. But watching Noyce's film, I felt what's trite about the story. In
the character of Fowler, Green helped launch the tiresome cliche of the
world-weary reporter who eventually discovers he must take sides, which is
precisely what happens here. And Pyle, too, is a stereotype, the American
innocent abroad of Henry James or Mark Twain, but now mutated into a villain
whose villainy lies in his ignorant rectitude. He's the kind of guy who will
destroy a village to save it.

Green had no great love for America, and though he turned out to be pressured
about Vietnam, the limitation of his novel, and of this movie, is its
simplistic view of America's world-saving innocence. It seems blind to the
possibility that there might be times, as in Kosovo, when Pyle's can-do
naivety might prove far more humanly useful than the intelligent Fowler's
jaded realism. In fact, I must admit that the quiet American inside me finds
something seductive in the idea of saving Vietnam, saving Kosovo and now
saving Iraq. There's a certain romantic grandeur to the conception, the
possibility of remaking a wounded country, if not the whole world, that stirs
something deep and good in our national soul.

But one of the great reasons to see "The Quiet American" is to be reminded
that if we aren't careful, the admirable desire to save the world can be very
dangerous, to ourselves and to those we're trying to save.

BIANCULLI: John Powers is film critic and media columnist for LA Weekly.

(Credits)

BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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