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A Swath of Righteous Savagery

A Review of The Quiet American

by DOUGLAS VALENTINE

The movie, the Quiet American, is fast, tight and to the point: the point being that the CIA is a terrorist organization capable of car-bombing a square in Saigon and blaming it on the Communists, or watching with apparent knowing glee as two planes plowed into the Twin Towers in New York City. In either case the atrocity is deniable, never investigated, and intended to start a war that will enrich the elite, while destroying the lives of millions of innocent people in the process. And that’s why the movie’s distributors waited a year to release this great good film.

Michael Caine is perfect as Thomas Fowler, the dissolute Brit, a knight in tarnished armor, and self-imposed exile, squandering his life and his lover’s. Brendan Fraser slips naturally into the skin of Alden Pyle, the archetypal CIA snake oil salesman: charming and bright, an unfathomable complex of fake identities wrapped around evil intentions. And Do Thi Hai Yen is vibrant as Phuong, the essence of the feminine principle, as powerless in the face of oppression as Palestine. Her name in Vietnamese means Phoenix, a symbol of peace and harmony, and she is caught between Fowler and Pyle in the same way animistic Vietnam was exploited and torn apart for decades by competing, self-serving Imperial powers.

There are many powerful symbols in this film allegory, and for that reason one should not confuse it with Graham Greene’s novel. The book is more intensely personal: Fowler is fouler in his vain, self-contempt; Pyle (the hemorrhoid) is more the otherly abstraction; and Phuong is far more erotic and fragile. But this is not a criticism. The movie is elegant, relevant and hopeful. The book is a flat cynical statement of human beings whose actions are made comprehensible only in the lucid light of an opium high.

The story itself is simple. Fowler is a lecherous old adulterer (who writes well), and his Faustian pact is interrupted by the devil in the guise of virile, youthful Alden Pyle. The outcome of their rivalry, in the short-term, is a foregone conclusion. But as Pyle’s personas peel away, Fowler is presented with a morally ambiguous opportunity for redemption. In the movie it is presented as poetic justice; after a half-hearted attempt to have it both ways, Fowler makes the dirty decision, then stradles the great white steed of idealism, and charges off in search of the Holy Grail. In the book it is pure hypocrisy; a twisted chance to win the Great Game, escape justice, and go home.

Both the movie and the book are fabulous in their way, and both prophesize the overarching choice each American citizen must make as our quiet vanguard, the CIA, cuts a swath of righteous savagery through the world. Both tell us that in the end it doesn’t matter why you do the right thing, just as long as you do it.

This is a terrific movie. Don’t miss it.

DOUGLAS VALENTINE is the author of The Hotel Tacloban, The Phoenix Program, and TDY. His new book The Strength of the Wolf: the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 1930-1968 will be published by Verso. Valentine was an investigator for Pepper on the King case in 1998-1999. For information about Valentine and his books and articles, please visit his website at www.douglasvalentine.com.

He can be reached at: redspruce@attbi.com

Valentine’s last article for CounterPunch was: An Act of State: the Assassination of Martin Luther King