In limited release to qualify for the Oscars, The Quiet American is a towering achievement with a soul-baring performance by Michael Caine that deserves the highest praise. Based on Graham Greene’s 1955 novel that skewers early U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the film boasts a probing script by Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan. It’s a personal best for Aussie director Phillip Noyce, on a roll with his remarkable Rabbit-Proof Fence (the factual story of three aboriginal girls fighting white colonialists).
Caine plays Thomas Fowler, a veteran London Times journalist assigned to Saigon, circa 1952. The married Thomas has taken a teen mistress, Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen), who supplies him with sex and opium. What Caine shows to piercing effect is the love Thomas feels for the girl, a love threatened by the arrival of Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser is strikingly good), the deceptively naive American who may be behind a bombing in Saigon Square charged to the communists. Noyce stages the action to stunning effect, and he brings delicacy to the battle waged by the men over Phuong, a symbol of her country. Caine has never been better, which is saying something. He puts a human face on a tragic era of history in a film that ranks with the year’s finest.