The Quiet American

As a title, “The Quiet American” becomes more ironic as the film progresses. It is about America’s involvement in Vietnam in the 1950s, involvement that ultimately led to our fighting the Vietnam War, which I don’t have to tell you was an extremely unfortunate turn of events.

It is 1952 and the Yankee in question, Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), is a humanitarian worker in Saigon, assisting villagers who are being harmed by the ongoing fighting between the French and the communists.

At the film’s outset, however, he is dead. His friend, jaded journalist Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine), tells us in flashback how they met and what led to Pyle’s death. Pyle was idealistic and young; Fowler didn’t get involved, didn’t form opinions. He merely reported what happened, cabling his stories back to England, where most of his readers didn’t care what went on half a world away in Southeast Asia.

As told in flashback, Fowler has a wife in London who won’t grant him a divorce; as a result, he cannot marry Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen), the alluring Vietnamese woman he has lived with for years. Pyle enters their lives, enthusiastic and youthful, eager to learn from Fowler, and a little too eager to become acquainted with Phuong.

Thus begins a romantic triangle that is curiously genteel, at least on the surface. (At one point, Pyle proposes marriage to Phuong right in front of Fowler.) Underneath, it is a jagged metaphor for American involvement in Vietnam, and the transformations of the characters from good to bad symbolize the same thing. America, Vietnam — everything’s corruptible.

Caine’s performance is vivid and expressive, by turns stoic and emotional. Fraser, the quintessential all-American guy, is well-cast as Pyle, a man who, like everyone else in the film, is more than what he seems.

Directed by Australian filmmaker Phillip Noyce (“Rabbit-Proof Fence,” “Clear and Present Danger”), it’s a skeptical film, one that asks what we — as a nation, and as individuals — are willing to do to get what we want. Through the gritty drama of the film comes the unsettling suggestion that the answer might be, “Anything.”

B+ (1 hr., 40 min.; R, brief harsh profanity, some mild sexuality, some strong violence.)