A beautiful melancholy hovers over the tragic players in The Quiet American, Phillip Noyce’s superbly controlled, passionate adaptation of Graham Greene’s 1955 novel about political and romantic treachery in 1950s Vietnam. The country looks timelessly serene and sensual, but it’s all about to blow, of course, and everything duplicitous and naive is contained within the hooded personal agendas of a tired British journalist, a fresh-faced American on a mission, and a graceful young Vietnamese woman loved by both men.
The story belongs to Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine), a calloused veteran London Times correspondent and the exhausted opposite of a hungry newshound: Happy to be away from his unsatisfying marriage to a woman back in England who won’t divorce him (this is Greene country, after all), Fowler relishes his routines of leisure, and most of all enjoys the company of his young Vietnamese mistress, Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen). But the arrival of Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), a hearty handshake of a fellow ostensibly on the scene to run a medical aid program, changes all that. While the can-do, gung ho American establishes a friendship with the end-of-the-empire Brit, he also falls in love with Phuong, and makes a play for her. (Also, he’s not quite the administrative envoy he appears.)
Geopolitical history is thus enveloped in a love story, a murder mystery, and a spy story about something big. The actors know it, too. Caine makes his towering performance look casual; Fraser gets to exercise the strong, serious chops he hasn’t had call to display since ”Gods and Monsters.”
”The Quiet American” is a disquieting story, intently critical not only of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam but also of aggressive, forward-thrusting U.S.-ness in general; for this reason there’s been studio hemming and hawing about when to release the picture. Well, now’s fine, thanks. Surely audiences for a serious literary thriller are able to appreciate superior filmmaking and are unthreatened by psychological discomfort (or, indeed, by the weight of sorrow that lingers decades after U.S. troops left Vietnam). Besides, the blame is pretty well distributed all around. Noyce’s movie works because the director (who previously juggled thrills and political intrigue in ”Patriot Games” and ”Clear and Present Danger”) trusts himself, and his audience, to understand that catastrophe isn’t always a matter of loud ideology. Rather, it’s the result of age-old human weakness. And sometimes it’s quiet.