The Quiet American review by Mike Long

We've all seen films that were based on novels, and often we compare the book to the movie and the movie to the book, and discuss which is better. There are also times when one views a film, and even with no prior knowledge, you know immediately that it is based on a novel. The Quiet American is such a film, as this very literary film is like a journey back to AP English class.

The Quiet American is set in Saigon, Vietnam in 1952. Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine) is a British journalist who is stationed in Hanoi. Having left his wife behind in London, Fowler has taken a Vietnamese lover named Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen). Their relationship is complicated by the fact that Fowler's wife will not grant him a divorce, therefore, he can't take Phuong back to London. So, their relationship lives in a sort of limbo. Things are further strained when Fowler meets Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), the "Quiet American" of the title. Pyle is in Vietnam as part of a medical aid team. The locals refer to those from the U.S. who aren't in Vietnam to create trouble as "Quiet Americans".

When Pyle meets Phuong, it's love at first sight. Knowing the situation between Phuong and Fowler, Pyle isn't bashful in expressing his feelings for her, thus creating a very bizarre and awkward lover's triangle. Meanwhile, the fighting and tension between the French and the Vietnamese communists is increasing, and Fowler begins to dig deeper into the intricacies of the government. And as he explores these complexities, he keeps running into Pyle. Is this "Quiet American" more than he seems, and how will this affect the battle for who wins Phuong's heart?

The Quiet American is based on the novel by writer Graham Greene. (Who apparently isn't the guy who was in Die Hard With a Vengeance.) As with any complex novel, there is more than one story going on in this film. First of all, we have the plot involving Fowler, Pyle, and Phuong. While the backdrop and the situation may be unique, in essence, this is a fairly straight-forward love story. And, as an audience, we are torn because Fowler and Pyle each have their positive traits. Secondly, we have the story of the escalating conflict in Vietnam. As Fowler covers this story, we begin to learn how good intentions in the country led to unnecessary stress and conflict. Where The Quiet American gets complicated is the place in which these two stories intertwine. One could easily view this as another love story set in an exotic locale. However, if you pay attention to the politics being discussed in the film, you will see that the relationship tale represents the political story. Phuong is Vietnam -- an exotic country that appears to need saving. Fowler represents those who have a passing interest in the country, but wish to remain neutral. But, Pyle is America -- he barges in and wants to take everything for himself. In that view, the story here is decidedly anti-American -- a risky sale at this time in history.

The complexities of the story aside, The Quiet American is a fairly satisfying film. The performances, most notably Michael Caine's Oscar and Golden Globe nominated turn as Fowler, are excellent. Caine, who is now 70 years old, is fully believable as the 50-something Fowler, who has found a land where he can truly be himself. In my opinion, Brendan Fraser is typically gets overlooked for his acting skills, as he is very good here. He natural enthusiasm and boyish looks work perfectly to set up the audience's feelings about Pyle. And Do Thi Hai Yen, is very good as Phuong. It's clear that she is struggling with the English language, and that only adds another level of realism to the film. Director Phillip Noyce, known for action films such as Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, gives the film a nice pace, and he, along with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, have done a fantastic job photographing Vietnam. Yet, the film feels hollow at times. Just as with an important novel, The Quiet American is good, and very well-made, but it still leaves something to be desired. I'm glad that I saw it, but I can't say that I was entertained the whole time.

The Quiet American arrives on DVD courtesy of Buena Vista Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. However, this transfer has some issues. The image is quite grainy at times, and there is a noticeable amount of artifacting in some scenes. At other times, the images are muddy and blurry. On the plus side, this transfer does a great job of emphasizing the film's color scheme, as the daytime is washed out, while the night is lush and colorful. The technical aspects of this DVD improve greatly with the audio. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track on this DVD sounds fantastic and the sound design of the film really shines through there. The dialogue is clear and audible and the musical score sounds fine. But, it's during the crowd and battle scenes that this track really comes to life. The stereo and surround sound effects are superb and the amount of bass response is jarring. The Quiet American features one of the best audio experiences that I've had lately.

The DVD features a handful of extra features. We start with an audio commentary with features (are you sitting down?) director Phillip Noyce, actors Michael Caine, Brendan Fraser, and Tzi Ma, executive producer Sydney Pollack, producers Staffan Ahrenberg & William Horberg, co-writer Christopher Hampton, and interpreter & advisor to Phillip Noyce, Tran An Hua. Despite any fantasies which you may have had, this is not a group commentary, but one which has been edited together. Therefore, the proceedings are a bit stiff and not very spontaneous. And, it can be difficult to tell who's talking at times. Still, this track is loaded with information about the process which got the production started and the actual shooting of the film . Although the talk isn't always scene specific, one will learn a great deal from this track. Next up is an episode from The Sundance Channel program "Anatomy of a Scene". This 22-minute segment offers a fantastic overview of The Quiet American, with interviews with the cast and crew, as well as tons of behind-the-scenes footage. The show examines how the marketplace explosion scene was handled and is incredibly in-depth. Which makes the "original featurette" (5 minutes) included here pale in comparison. This segment is the typical press-kit type featurette, offering some soundbytes, but relying mainly on clips from the film. The last two extras are among the best that I've seen lately. First, we have an interactive timeline which explores the recent history of Vietnam, beginning in 1940. This historical document is invaluable in helping to explore the realities of the film. Next, we have three reviews for the original Graham Greene novel The Quiet American which appeared upon the book's publication. These essays not only explore the novel (and reveal how the ending differs from that found in the film), but show how the book's message was received at the time. As with many recent Disney DVDs, the trailer is noticeably absent.

The Quiet American is a very beautiful and well-acted film which offers a multi-layered storyline. But, despite the film's refined nature, it's never wholly engrossing. Still, those who are interested in historical dramas which explore a real time and place, The Quiet American may be a good choice.

7 out of 10 Jackasses

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