"These Americans are causing a lot of trouble for us." Not the words of a Vietnamese in this film, but of the French detective charged with solving the murder of a young American in the Saigon of 1952. Graham Green's novel, of which this film is an adaptation, was published in 1954. Green, of course, would only have had an inkling of the horrors that would ensue in the following decade, but the adaptation cannot escape the legacy of the commencement of subversive American involvement in the politics of Indochina even before the French had left. This is partly, of course, because we are viewing the events that unfold on the screen with the knowledge of hindsight. Yet, the film itself thankfully spares us any such conscious anachronism.
Michael Caine is good as British journalist Thomas Fowler; Brendan Fraser is great as the young American upstart, Alden Pyle. (Brendan Fraser is a vastly under-rated actor in my book. He usually plays tough gung-ho good guys, which makes his casting in this film - and in `Gods and Monsters' so surprising and yet so good.) The woman over whom they fight, Phuong, is so delicately beautiful and is played by Vietnamese actor Do Thi Hai Yen. The scenes of Saigon are full of atmosphere, and Craig Armstrong's music adds riches to the scenes. The first hour focuses on the love triangle, but once the bomb-scene in the Place Garnier takes place - and it does jolt the viewer out of his complacency - the tension builds. The director talks of the film being a love triangle, a murder-mystery, and a political thriller, all in one.
Phuong is supposed to be symbolic of the country as a whole, being in the grip of an old and fading colonial power and yet also within the sights of the new idealistic power of the United States. Pyle describes Phuong to Fowler as "a daughter of a professor, taxi-dancer, mistress of an older European man ... well that pretty well describes the whole country, doesn't it?" And then adds, "We [the Americans] are here to save Vietnam from all that." The co-writer of the film, Christopher Hampton, argues that Fowler condones the murder of Pyle, because the former is more in love with Vietnam than with Phuong: Fowler fears what Pyle's actions would do to his beloved country.
For this to work Pyle needs to have the sympathy of the audience. I'm not sure this does actually work. Sure, Pyle tells Fowler that, "It's not that easy to remain uninvolved," and Fowler too can be unsympathetic at times - witness his lie to Phuong that his wife back in England had finally agreed to a divorce. But my sympathy for Pyle is skin-deep if at all, and again this is probably due to historical hindsight seeing in Pyle's actions a long road to hell for Vietnam and for Pyle's compatriots back in the States. As Fowler's Vietnamese assistant, Hinh (played by Tzi Ma), says to him face-to-face, "Sooner or later one has to takes sides, if one is to remain human." Hinh is in on the conspiracy to murder Pyle; my sympathy is with the former, rather than the latter. Like Greek's who bear gifts, beware the quiet American!
There is a very well-structured commentary with this film, to which not only the director (Phillip Noyce) and some of the actors contribute (Caine, Fraser, Tzi Ma), but also some of the producers (including Sydney Pollack), the co-writer (Christopher Hampton) and interpreter/adviser Tran An Hua. There are very few direct references to action taking place on the screen. Rather, in his commentary, Noyce provides a concise background history to the movie's events, and many of the other contributors relate their personal lives to Vietnam and the war that followed the events of this film. (Caine, for example, talks about being eighteen years old and fighting in the Korean War.) Noyce also explains the background to the film's delayed release in 2002.
Other extras include a twenty-minute feature `Anatomy of a Scene' from the Sundance Channel, with interviews with the producer, director, screenwriter, composer, DOP, editor, and actors. This shows the trouble taken to achieve authenticity in the double-bomb scene on the Place Garnier. It is interesting that the movie used actual Vietnamese casualties from the later war (people with lost limbs) to portray the victims in this scene. And yet the damage - both architectural and human - caused by the bombs do seem to me out of proportion to the blast that is portrayed on screen.
Finally, there is an interactive Vietnam timeline which provides background historical information, and some reproductions of reviews of the original Graham Greene novel.