While virtually no one in this country foresaw the American disaster in Vietnam, the late British writer Graham Greene glimpsed it with astonishing clarity, a decade before the first U.S. "advisor" set foot on Vietnamese soil. Now Greene's 1955 novel has been made into a disturbing and provocative film, The Quiet American, by Australian director Phillip Noyce. The story is set in Saigon in 1952, amid the last paroxysms of the French misadventure in Indochina and prior to our own. But Greene's title character, a naive U.S. spy named Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), presages the horrors to come. A hulking Cold War idealist with an obstinate devotion to cause, he unwittingly wreaks havoc in the name of democracy and poisons the lives of all those around him.
The suggestion, in Greene's book and in the film, that Americans acting on behalf of their government could be complicit in terrorism is explosive stuff in today's post-9-11 climate and, for that, Noyce's long-delayed film is bound to be anathema in some political circles. The atmosphere is not as nasty as Greene's original fiction, but the film is far more inflammatory than Joseph L. Mankiewicz's sanitized 1958 version, in which Audie Murphy's Alden Pyle was retooled as a heroic U.S. diplomat fighting the good fight against communism.
Graham Greene's vision derived from his admirable skill as a novelist (his masterpieces include The Heart of the Matter, Brighton Rock, and The End of the Affair), his conversion to Catholicism, his service during World War II as an agent for British intelligence, and his lifelong scorn for almost all things American -- from the cut of our suits to the presumptions of our foreign policy. Pyle is not just a character but a symbol of Yank chicanery, steeped in raw, self-righteous innocence.
But neither Graham Greene nor Phillip Noyce -- who has completed a cinematic perfecta with his recent direction of the heartbreaking Aussie hit Rabbit-Proof Fence -- is concerned wholly with politics, and neither is willing to segregate good from evil. Those familiar with that region of the soul literary critics have long called "Greeneland" -- a spiritual purgatory, where the obligations of faith and the nature of sin always come into question -- will find themselves uncomfortably at home with these characters, as they will in Noyce's steamy, beguiling Saigon. Like Greene's Haiti or his prerevolutionary Cuba, it is a place of back-alley deceptions, opium-scented decadence, and sudden violence: a netherworld visitors never quite grasp, despite their addiction to it.
Among the inhabitants -- or intruders -- whom we meet is one Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine), a world-weary British journalist who has detached himself not only from the dangerous, simmering politics he writes about, but also from his own emotions. A classic Greene type, played to cynical perfection by one of the world's great actors, Fowler soon finds himself in the kind of spiritual tug-of-war he always seeks to avoid. A married man who's in love with a beautiful Vietnamese girl called Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen), Fowler soon discovers he has a rival for his mistress's affections. It is, of course, the ever-eager Alden Pyle, who woos Phuong with the same blind sincerity with which he pursues the secretive American mission in Saigon. Leave it to Greene, Noyce, and screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons) to paint this intrigue, too, in moral ambiguity. Like Vietnam itself, Phuong is a seductress who declines to be won. She is a force of nature, who suffers abuse but endures, unchanged. If, half a century ago, we Americans needed warnings about what would befall our troops in the Mekong Delta or our politicians in the thickets of southeast Asian diplomacy, we needn't have looked any further than Phuong and The Quiet American. Instead, we looked not at all and paid the price. Meanwhile, our official certainties about policing the world look more stubborn than ever these days.
For director Noyce, The Quiet American and Rabbit-Proof Fence -- his affecting drama about half-caste Aborigine girls fleeing government captivity -- represent a startling return to form. Once considered a leading light on the Aussie independent scene, he took the cash to make such Hollywood potboilers as Patriot Games and The Saint; so the intense emotions and highly personal style of his two new films come as a happy surprise. As for Brendan Fraser, whose resume is littered with dumbed-down credits like Encino Man and George of the Jungle, American gives him his first opportunity since Gods and Monsters to show off some real acting chops. If the conservatives don't now stone him to death for portraying Greene's meddlesome spook, he'll probably attract some more worthy offers.
While Brendan waits by the phone, we have the chance to behold this unsettling, morally complex, and timely view of American power abroad. Many will it find courageous, and some, no doubt, will absolutely revile it, but no one is likely to look away from the screen. Chances are that Graham Greene, who died in 1991, would have welcomed the ensuing arguments.