Phillip Noyce’s The Quiet American , from a screenplay by Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan, based on the novel by Graham Greene, and Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine belong to that category of the cinema much beloved by the once-dominant practitioners of O Brother, Where Art Thou? film criticism, which enthroned movies with a “message.” As you may recall from Preston Sturges’ hilarious Hollywood satire Sullivan’s Travels (1942), O Brother, Where Art Thou? was the title of a proletarian novel that escapist director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) wanted to bring to the screen over the vociferous protests of his crass, bottom-line-obsessed studio bosses. These creatures of commerce are still with us, and they would no doubt deplore projects as potentially prickly at the box office as The Quiet American and Bowling for Columbine .
My problem here is that, as a revisionist reviewer from way back, I made my reputation-and many enemies as well-by challenging the O Brother, Where Art Thou? school of movie-reviewing in order to resurrect such hitherto neglected and underrated Hollywood genres as the western, the film noir, the gangster film, the woman’s film and even the musical. For my efforts, I have often been maligned, most recently by a piece of silly Stalinist nostalgia in Cineaste magazine, in which I am branded a “tepid liberal.” I know the insult is coming from the left, since if it were coming from the right, I would be called a “knee-jerk liberal.”
Whether tepid or knee-jerk, all liberals have had a problem in coping politically with the patriotic fallout from 9/11, making possible the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Rice-CNN beating of the drums for a pre-emptive invasion of Iraq. On the one hand, there are many liberals who are uncomfortable with the current antiwar protesters, some of whom seem to believe that the world would have been a garden paradise if the United States had never existed. But on the other hand, the Bush administration seems to be swinging to the right of Genghis Khan on domestic issues as it maneuvers, with the help of the supine media, to establish a plutocratic empire of the very rich.
In this poisonous atmosphere, movies like The Quiet American and Bowling for Columbine run the risk of being regarded as anti-American or, at the very least, singularly ill-timed. In this respect, The Quiet American has met more distribution problems than Bowling for Columbine , which has muffled some of its genuinely radical social criticism with its obtrusive and too often simplistic anti-gun “message.” On the whole, however, Bowling for Columbine seems more tightly wired to today’s traumas than The Quiet American , which is set in the Vietnam of half a century ago.
As it happens, The Quiet American was finished before 9/11, and Greene’s novel had been filmed unsuccessfully once before, with Joseph L. Mankiewicz at the helm of a 1958 production widely criticized for betraying the letter and the spirit of Greene’s gloomy, self-hating
anti-Americanism. In the Noyce version, Michael Caine plays Greene’s alter ego, a British journalist in Saigon named Thomas Fowler, with considerably more charm and humility than Michael Redgrave did the desiccated, dissipated, derisive Fowler written for him by Mankiewicz. In both versions, Fowler makes a curiously unsympathetic protagonist, betraying the mysterious “quiet American” Alden Pyle after the American has saved his life. Here again, Brendan Fraser’s Pyle is a considerable improvement on Audie Murphy’s monotonously callow Pyle in the Mankiewicz version. Whereas Mr. Fraser projects both Pyle’s malignant mystery and his seeming naïveté, Murphy’s Pyle never got past the naïveté.
Neither film dwells on the many Greene jokes on why a “quiet” American is such an oxymoron. Mankiewicz’s Pyle is six years away from Marlon Brando’s incarnation of “The Ugly American” in the movie of the same title in 1963, when anti-Vietnam War fever was rising on the nation’s campuses and supplying an audience presumably hostile to the meddling of U.S. government emissaries abroad.
Fowler is, of course, doubly motivated to send Pyle to his death when Pyle threatens to “rescue” Fowler’s Vietnamese mistress, Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen), by marrying her-something Fowler supposedly can’t do because his wife in England won’t give him a divorce. In the Mankiewicz version, the role of Fowler’s mistress was played by a European actress named Giorgia Moll, a measure of the movie’s comparative inauthenticity in shooting most of the footage in Rome, with a few background location shots taken in Saigon. Frankly, I don’t remember how Ms. Moll fared in her role, and I can’t say I was particularly impressed one way or another by the current replacement. Mr. Caine and Mr. Fraser are the whole show here, with their memorable and resourceful performances. It’s too bad the ending had to be made more ruinously “positive.” Though Mr. Noyce and his screenwriters are closer to Greene than Mankiewicz ever thought of being, they also betray him by bringing Fowler’s reporting career forward. Instead of having Mr. Caine’s Fowler morally redeemed by filing antiwar dispatches from the front, Mr. Noyce, Mr. Hampton and Mr. Schenkkan would have been better advised to use a voice-over for Greene’s last words in the novel, on Fowler’s state of mind after Pyle’s death: “Everything had gone right with me since he had died, but how I wished there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry.”
It must be noted, however, that Mankiewicz was making an essentially liberal anti-Communist statement in the middle of the Cold War, with proxy armies on both sides of the Iron Curtain extending to Korea, Vietnam and the China Straits. I yield to no one in my admiration of Greene’s literary gifts, and I don’t expect or demand of any Englishman that he love the United States. But as David Thomson notes in the excellent essay on Graham Greene in his invaluable The New Biographical Dictionary of Film , “Greene once said he’d rather live in the Soviet Union than in the United States.” After 9/11, one loses one’s appetite to be indulgent toward the idiotic political statements of even the greatest artists.
Michael Moore is not likely to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature anytime soon by the fanatical purists on the nominating committee. Indeed, a journalist has already complained that Mr. Moore is not “objective” enough in Bowling for Columbine . At a time when the Bush administration is pursuing antitrust charges against those two allegedly collusive media giants, The Village Voice and New Times , while turning a blind eye to all the media-gobbling by its corporate contributors, we need less journalistic objectivity and more of the most outrageous journalistic subjectivity.
Still, it’s true that Mr. Moore is not averse to taking cheap shots now and then, with his roving camera and clownish masquerades. I have met Charlton Heston twice in my life, and though I completely disagree with his fervent opposition to gun-control legislation, I have found him to be a polite and civilized human being. I was therefore less than enchanted when Mr. Moore persisted in pursuing Mr. Heston on his own premises with the picture of a 6-year-old white girl who had been shot by a 6-year-old African-American classmate who had found a gun in his uncle’s house, all the while asking, cajoling, virtually demanding that Mr. Heston look at the pictures as part of the ongoing controversy over gun control. I have become sick of this overfamiliar, tauntingly confrontational tactic on television, even when a noble cause is being promoted.
Mr. Moore was much more usefully engaged when he pursued the back story of this tragic incident from the point of view of the single mother of this 6-year-old shooter, and the two-hour bus ride she had to take every morning and every night to work at two minimum-wage jobs in a suburban fast-food joint owned by a television celebrity just to pay off her welfare allotment in the name of “welfare reform.”
This back story was not really about guns at all, but about simple decency, kindness and humanity, about which the media never seem to be concerned in their mad haste to follow the sound of gunfire wherever it takes them, from Montgomery County in Maryland to the streets of South Central Los Angeles-and, of course, to Columbine High School.
Though Mr. Moore takes some more cheap shots at inoffensive working stiffs who happen to sell guns to make a living, his back stories continue to bail him out. For example, he finds himself in South Central Los Angeles with his camera crew when police and television reporters begin swarming over a seemingly quiet location because there has been a report of a man with a gun. It is as if everyone had been waiting for a crime to happen. Off in the distance, the supposedly visible Hollywood sign is completely enshrouded by the usual smog in this thoroughly polluted city. Yet, Mr. Moore impishly informs us, no police are chasing after the polluters who are damaging every citizen’s lungs. This is Mr. Moore at his best and most valuable, which is to say that his subtexts are more profound and more constructively progressive than his tongue-in-cheek declarations. All right, the advanced industrial societies in Europe and Asia don’t have as many guns in civilian hands as we do and, consequently, fewer fire-arm fatalities. But then why do the Canadians, who have even more guns per capita than we do, kill so many fewer of their inhabitants per capita than we do? Are there nicer people in Canada than in the U.S.? Mr. Moore, an admitted lifelong member of the National Rifle Association himself, is refreshingly candid about not having the answer to this perplexing question.
A possible explanation is provided by Mr. Moore’s left-wing litany of alleged imperialist interventions abroad by the C.I.A. and other agencies of our government, not to mention the many manifestations of our supposed Manifest Destiny. Then there are the traumas of slavery, segregation and immigration-and let’s not forget homicidal video games. All in all, Mr. Moore has given us a lot to think about in Bowling for Columbine , and he has entertained us royally in the process.