Tuesday, May 06, 2003

The Quiet American

Caught the slightly talented Philip Noyce's film of the immensely talented Graham Greene's little anti-American screed the other day. Very interesting politically and very interesting as a movie. Its no coincidence this film was made at the height of the War on Terror, since it deals with Vietnam--America's worst defeat--and essentially accuses American intelligence services of committing terrorist acts in the '50s in order to whip up anti-communist sentiment. Historically, its all nonsense. Eisenhower didn't come to the aid of the French at Dien Bien Phu and didn't want to get involved in what he thought was a nasty little post-colonial civil war. He actually thought the stand against communism in Asia would probably have to be made in Laos or in Malaysia. At any rate, the film is quite clearly propagandistic in intent, and its none too subtle in making its points either, which helps it as agitprop and hurts it badly as drama.
The reason for this is simple: the American of the title, played by Brenden Fraser, is such a grotesque monster, such an obvious moral pygmy, that the film destroys the most powerful and disturbing complexity of Greene's work, the fact that his villians are attractive. Greene's quiet American is, essentially, a rewrite of Harry Lime, the villian of Greene's classic thriller The Third Man--a fact which the film lays on thick, at moments Fraser looks uncannily like Orson Welles' legendary film portrayal of Lime, this also works against the film as Fraser is, to say the least, no Orson Welles--who is most memorable for his extraordinarily logical nihilism. He is not only evil, he understands why he is evil and can explain it to you so clearly that one almost develops a certain intellectual sympathy for him. Fraser's American, however, is crude, naive, blustering, and thoroughly monstrous. He has none of Lime's charm, and you do not, as you do in The Third Man, almost unwillingly root for his escape from the forces of justice.

But this is a Graham Greene story and Greene was, in the final analysis, not a political writer. He held certain sympathies, mostly relating to an odd type of intellectual Catholicism, and seems to have a very real sense of moral guilt over the inevitability of realpolitik, but he was not an ideologist. What Greene is really interested in is love, and with love its antithesis, betrayal. The theme looms large in The Third Man, and as in that novel and Greene's masterpiece The End of the Affair the story is ultimately about two men competing over a woman and, by extension, the friendship between the two competing suitors one of whom bitterly betrays the other. Greene's alter ego is, of course, one of the characters--it is no coincidence that the main character of all three books is a writer--and it is, fascinatingly enough, always this alter ego who is guilty of betraying his friend. Clearly, Greene saw some measure of sin in all this even though in many ways the betrayal is completely justified. In each case, and particularly in The Quiet American, the betrayal is, objectively, the only moral thing to do. And yet there is the lingering sense of it all not being worth it, that the destruction of love is not, perhaps, worth the consummation of justice.
The film, however, is having none of this. It exists in a world that is pure blacks and whites. The American is evil, he must be destroyed, and his friend--played brilliantly by Michael Caine--suffers no pangs of conscience for his actions. In this sacrifice of Greene's complexities in favor of acerbic moralism, the film betrays the essential quality that raised Greene's work above the level of the cheap thriller, turning it into exactly the type of semi-political melodrama we thank God he never wrote. Greene is essentially asking whether, if you have to sin to do the right thing, is it worth doing the right thing at all? This is a question Greene never really managed to answer, but one which the film, for all its moralistic pretentions, doesn't even have to guts to ask.


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