This yet another tale that starts with the end and proceeds in flashback opening in 1952 as British foreign correspondent Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine) is ID-ing the body of his dead American friend Pyle. The bulk of the movie goes on to tell the story of their friendship and reveal what led to Pyle's death. Fowler we learn has had a successful career reporting from colonial Indochina as the embattled country has been embroiled in a battle for control by the French the Commies and eventually the U.S. Over the years Fowler's gotten a little lazy and his boss back home is demanding he return to London if he doesn't come up with a big scoop. The thought of leaving his young willing mistress Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen) to return home to his boring old English wife nearly kills the guy so he puts his investigative-journalist hat on and attempts to suss out a story connecting the country's newest general and a recent bloody massacre. Enter young American Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser who we might bring up happens to be Canadian) who professes to be in Saigon on an altruistic U.S. mission to bring medical supplies into Vietnam. Pyle and Fowler strike up a friendship that briefly hits a rut when Pyle admits he's in love with little lotus flower Phuong and goes so far as to boldly propose to her in Fowler's living room (we won't spoil it by revealing her answer). However this supposedly "quiet American " as Fowler once describes him isn't so quiet after all--Fowler discovers Pyle's been voicing some things to the general himself in the Vietnamese language he has claimed he doesn't know.
Michael Caine's subtle nuanced performance is sublime and it's the only thing that elevates this movie from dated and pointless costume melodrama. Caine seems all the more obviously great thanks to his counterpart Fraser's often one-dimensional delivery; Fraser's not terrible but as the character with the greatest arc you'd think he'd give Pyle a little more "oomph." To his credit you don't quite know if Pyle's bland guilelessness is part of an intentional disguise or simply his "quiet American" innocence. Oddly enough there is a certain rapport between the men--Fraser comes off as a lunkhead in leading-man roles in mainstream fare but when paired with an Oscar-caliber actor (like he was with Ian McKellen in Gods and Monsters) he can hold his own. Ultimately everyone's performance pales next to Caine's turn as Fowler whose steadfast old-school dignified demeanor covers--usually--an intense possessive (though relatively unexplained) love.
You don't need to be beaten over the head with a colonial stick to realize the characters serve as metaphors for their native countries--the American idealist with grand aspirations the old-fashioned humanitarian-minded Brit the innocent beautiful Vietnamese who desires her independence but remains helpless at the center of their struggle. This allegory is couched in the story of political intrigue and espionage that is the movie's more interesting tale but unfortunately it's overwhelmed by the tedious love triangle. What are these two dolts Fowler and Pyle concerned with while taking cover in a bunker as bombs explode all around them and their lives could end at any moment? Who gets Phuong. What do they fight about while fending off the enemy in a remote watchtower? Who gets Phuong. We get the symbolism already--delicate sweet-faced Phuong is the coveted territory over which both imperialists want to raise their flags--but really. The book may have come out in '55 but did this adaptation have to seem like it was made that year too? For instance there are dozens of Phuongs running around Saigon anxious to find a man so there might have been some other reason suggested for the men's tortured competition for the (admittedly quite lovely) Phuong's affection besides her youth and beauty. It seems to be her only allure as she has little personality can barely speak English and has nothing in common with either man. Director Phillip Noyce paces the film nicely and the shots are gorgeous but The Quiet American's story just doesn't have much impact.