This film was supposed to come out in late 2001, but Miramax feared that releasing a film about pre-war Vietnam might make post-9/11 audiences uncomfortable, especially as it warns against the dangers of the US meddling with third world countries. So they sat on it for a year and released it with little fanfare. Too bad, as The Quiet American is fantastic, the sort of film Hollywood should be putting out but isn't.
In this faithful adaptation of Graham Greene's prescient 1955 novel about Vietnam between its French and American conflicts – which packs more punch now, of course, since we can watch it from a postwar perspective – we're given a typical Greene setup: a love triangle set against a heavier political crisis. The story unfolds in 1952 Saigon, where a cynical British journalist (Michael Caine, 20 years too old for the part but never better) and an idealistic American "medical worker" (Brendan Fraser) both fall in love with a local taxi dancer. Their differing opinions about what's best for her reflect their opposing views about her country's future, as the Communists drive out the French and the US presence becomes suspiciously more noticeable.
Caine and Fraser perfectly inhabit their roles, and Do Thi Hai Yen brings a resonance to her character, who I felt was merely an exotic cypher in the novel. Nobody writes like Graham Greene these days – he had a knack for exploring the dark sides of his characters, and allowing them to commit acts of great betrayal against even their closest friends. Which may be why Miramax was afraid to back it in these we're-right-and-they're-wrong times. The story is a bitter pill to swallow, bringing up the troubling idea that maybe the world would be better off if the US just minded its own damn business. Of course that idea makes The Quiet American even more timely than ever right now.
Director Noyce preserves the pungency of Greene's grim outlook, and the amazing cinematographer Christopher Doyle is completely in his element here, painting mid-'50s Vietnam as a shadowy, crumbling beauty. Even without his usual collaborator Wong Kar Wai, he puts in his very best work.