dir: Philip Noyce
[img_assist|nid=1044|title=I wonder how that war ended up going...|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=319|height=475]
Wait, there was a war in Vietnam? Why didn't anyone tell me about it? Was it a big war? And why has Hollywood ignored this potential goldmine? They should get that room with the thousand monkeys chained to their typewriters cracking right away.
I am sick to death of films relating to the Vietnam war. Thoroughly sick to fucking death. Sure, there's been plenty of wonderful and touching films about America's obsession with that little communist country (Full Metal Jacket, Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Hamburger Hill) and the apparent deep scar it has left on the national psyche, but I think it's been done more than enough. Give it a rest, people. Hell, I love a good war film as much as the next sociopath, but there's this point where a dead horse has been whipped so much that you haven't even got enough horse left to make gravy with.
In that case am I glad that this film, though it deals again with that country, is focused upon the lead up to
the 'war' as opposed to the war itself? Well, kinda.
The film focuses on the mid-fifties, a time when the communist North under the divine leadership of Ho Chi Minh and Jane Fonda is trying to kick the French out of Vietnam, which everyone else keeps calling Indochina, even though it's obviously neither Indian or Chinese. The US government, at this stage, as an extension of the post-WWII Marshall Plan and the idea of 'containing' communism, is very concerned with the goings-on in Vietnam, and seeks to help out the wonderful people of that fair country with 'aid' and medical services helpfully provided by the compassionate guys and gals from the CIA.
Now that set up is pretty much based on most versions of what happened. Graham Greene, the author of the book this film is based on wrote the story in the 50's, so he didn't know just how much more dire the situation was going to get, especially for the Vietnamese but for the United States as well. Obviously, as in other books of his he was critical of US foreign policy. On the eve of another war in a seemingly
insignificant little country, I personally can't imagine why.
All the same, this is in many senses just the background to the story, as in whilst the plot is in parts set up as a mystery (as in, I wonder who is providing money and explosives to a newly self-appointed anti-communist General? Maybe it's the Smurfs?), it's mostly just the environment which our three main protagonists are allowed to play in.
For this is in fact a story about a love triangle, between a beautiful Vietnamese girl called Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen), a crusty old British journalist (Michael Caine), and the Quiet American himself, Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser). The political and military machinations going on in the foreground and background are nothing but punctuation to the shifting relationship between the three characters.
The film opens with a narrator, being Caine, telling us about Vietnam in wonderfully poetic terms (it's a place where a woman's voice can drug you and the aromas are so powerful that you can practically see them), as we watch an image of a bay at night filled with little boats with a city in the background. After a while behind the city we can see signs of battle in the night sky, before the camera pans down to reveal a corpse floating in one of the boats.
The story kicks off from there, setting up the love triangle and also outlining the situation quite abruptly: Caine, playing Thomas Fowler is a journalist who has been living in Vietnam for a few years and is being recalled to the London office. That would totally fuck with his lifestyle, one which he is enjoying very much thank you. He gets to live the life of a virtual aristocrat, smoke opium and bang a beautiful Vietnamese girl forty years his junior, thus he is not too keen to go home. He believes that if he can get up north he can get a story to convince his masters to let him stay.
The French are getting their arses handed to them by the Communists, implied in the film to be as a result of a lack of materiel logistical support on the French side, though it could just have easily been implied that no-one has been afraid of a French army since Napoleon's day. But as Fowler digs in to the story, he finds that there seems to be a third player in the game for control of Vietnam, some group that happily massacres entire villages full of innocent people.
Concurrently with this Fowler makes friends with a young, idealistic American opthamologist called Pyle who is in Vietnam combating the spread of trachoma, which is the leading cause of preventable blindness in the world. Fowler makes an additional mistake by introducing Gomer Pyle to his mistress, Phuong. Pyle is smitten, and whilst he seems to apparently value his friendship with Fowler, he decides that Phuong belongs with him. I live in terror of what a man the size of Brendan Fraser could do to a tiny girl the size of Phuong, but, you know, no-one mentions it in the film as a possible obstacle.
Phuong, conscious of the fact that Fowler will never leave his wife and that he may be leaving soon without her, is both flattered and practical in relation to Gomer Pyle's attention, but like in all the best love triangles where the girl is nothing but a pawn, she seems like at all times she could go either way. She comes across as a cold gold digger for much of it, but I think that could just have been her difficulty with English. She was far more animated in Vertical Ray of the Sun, but I guess all she really had to do here was stand in the right place and look up adoringly in whichever man's eyes when spoken to.
As their situation gets more complicated, so too does the war in Vietnam. As mentioned previously, because it's set in the fifties, we are (in my case gratefully) spared continuous scenes of combat, especially since that precludes any scenes where any soldiers get to say stuff like "I'm glad I could die for my country" or "tell my wife I love her", as quoted verbatim from the most nauseating sections of We Were Soldiers.
But on the other hand, apart from Caine's performance, there isn't too much else to hang our attention on. Because of the elliptical structure, we actually know how things will turn out, and the elementary Nancy Drew mystery solving is kind of redundant. But what does come out as somewhat complicated towards the end is the idea of "taking sides" and also complicity. A character states that "sometimes you have to choose a side in order to stay human", this said to a character who prides himself on his unbiased impartiality.
And, after a particularly brutal act of terrorism, we see a character play a part, a crucial part in the death of
another. But we are left to wonder was it motivated by jealousy, or out of a desire for vengeance / justice?
Brendan Fraser seems to be a bit outclassed in the role, but it kind of works, since he's supposed to come across as a decent kind of nerdish guy. He does in some instances seem to be channelling the characters he played in Blast From the Past and Dudley Do Right respectively. This is certainly not on a par with his work in Gods and Monsters, but hey, people don't give him much credit because he looks like such a big doofus.
As an adaptation of Graham Greene's novel, this one, compared to the 1958 film version, despite its faults and difficulties in production, is a truer representation. What hasn't been toned down is both the anti-US foreign policy sentiment and the extent of the CIA's involvement in terrorist activities and the butchery of innocent people for political point scoring. I am amazed that director Phillip Noyce and everyone else
involved with the film thought anyone wanted to hear about this kind of stuff in the current warmongering climate. I will not be surprised at all when this film generates tens of dollars at the box office and garners absolutely no attention at the Oscars, despite the fact that Caine's work here is far superior to whatever the hell he was pretending to be in the thoroughly shithouse Cider House Rules, for which he earned one of those gold plated dildos affectionately referred to as 'Oscar'.
In terms of the love triangle dynamics, they were far more complex, touching and skilfully represented in another adaptation of a Greene novel The End of the Affair, which is as well a far superior film. Though I've heard from several anaesthetists working in various surgery theatres in Melbourne
hospitals that instead of using gas and injections to knock their patients out they are now simply showing them a few minutes of End of the Affair instead. I enjoyed the film thoroughly, but most people I've spoken to drop into comas when I mention it. Here, the level of complexity of the relationships could be referred to as being 'soap opera' quality.
Christopher Doyle's cinematography is mostly low-key, but especially excels during night scenes. There are shots in the film that I cannot even guess as to how they were done.
The clumsy editing annoyed me as well. Other than that it was a relatively entertaining way to spend an hour and a half. Only complete ignoramuses (or ignorami) will be surprised by the nastier things the film has to say, but it's decent enough all the same, however rose coloured your glasses may be.
It's a very strong film dealing with complex characters and a complex time. Nothing is easier and more wrong than pointing fingers or bones at people without an adequate understanding of their motives. And the film finds a lot of reasons why people do wrong in the name of right.
7 opium hits out of 10
"I can't say what made me fall in love with Vietnam - that a woman's voice can drug you; that everything is so intense. The colors, the taste, even the rain." - The Quiet American