4 stars out of 4. One of the best films released since the new millennium.
Great novels rarely translate to the screen well. It is usually only done in a way that gives an audience an impression of the original points being made, or by merely replicating the book scene for scene. It is the rare exception that makes for a moving film adaptation of a moving novel. But it is the truly exceptional picture that serves to accentuate, enhance and truly enlighten a great work of literature and at the same time enlighten some part of our nearly incomprehensible world. In this 2002 adaptation of the Graham Greene novel, director Phillip Noyce is finally able to build upon the promise shown in feature after feature throughout his tenure at the major studios in the 1990’s.
It is not an easy film because it is not an easy story total. Greene wrote often of the erosion of man’s soul, typically from man’s own inherent weaknesses and frailties. This vision is set against the backdrop of Vietnam in the early 1950’s as the Communists waged a bitter war against the French for the nation’s independence. An aging British expatriate reporter named of Fowler reports the news in his own detached way by neither taking a side nor involving himself in much of anything besides his young Vietnamese lover, Phuong, who may or may not be the key to his heart still beating. Into this routine comes a white washed slightly bumbling American by the name of Pyle. Pyle becomes attached to Phuong and falls in love with her much to the concern of Fowler. This love triangle plays out against the festering conflict surrounding Saigon. Pyle is ostensibly part of an American medical team providing aid to the impoverished, but as the underlying natures of America’s political machinations in foreign non-democratic nations becomes apparent in Vietnam, Pyle may not be exactly what he seems.
Greene wrote this novel based upon his own experiences as a reporter in 50’s Saigon. It is partially autobiographical and completely from Greene’s detached, distrustful and deeply moving point of view. His cynicism and Fowler’s are one and the same, much as he and Fowler are the same. Pyle in the novel is less of a character than a catalyst and physical representation of all that Greene hated and mistrusted about America. What this film so masterfully does is weave a greater narrative sense into Greene’s story and allow the pages to breathe onscreen as in life so that the author’s original point is allowed to work freely through real flesh and blood characters.
This is no more apparent than in Michael Caine’s performance as Fowler. As always Caine readily inhabits his character in order to blur the lines between fiction and a feeling of impassioned reality. But as Fowler he adds an inherent degree of sadness that so completely adds that last necessary punctuation to Greene’s characterization. Caine’s Fowler is a woefully incomplete man who has come to some sort of terms that he is roughly an empty shell. His love for Phuong provides physical and emotional outlets for whatever remains of his drive and passion for life but it is again something that he cannot explain or define. He knows that she has become his whole existence, but in trying to explain this bond its very permanence would be destroyed. This deep set knowledge lies at the heart of Fowler’s sadness and leaves a lasting impression of finality in Caine’s eyes in every scene of the film.
Contrasted is Brendan Fraser’s performance as the titular American Pyle. Known and typed as the stud-ish B or C actioner and plagued by far too many dumb comedies, Fraser here uses his typical physical aloofness to an innate advantage as the outsider. His love for Phuong may be one element of humanity, but the rest of everything we see takes a backseat to his real reason for being in Vietnam. The outer appearance of an all-American is merely a front to the more devious operative beneath who allows the outer shell to blind him to what his actions will and are causing.
The meddling of the United States in overseas affairs during this era has never and will never be fully understood as much of it is still so secretive. In Vietnam, Pyle represents the formulation of a third front to challenge and supplant both the French and Communist forces by arming, training and supplying a separate faction under the leadership of a rogue commander. By playing these sides against one another the death toll rises with disastrous results. The fact that we began with a simple love triangle adds a governing layer to this revealed story so that the central conflict is human at its core and between two ever so different people.
To tell such a rich, languorous, dark and relatively true story in this day and age takes much guts. It takes even more to get someone to back it, let alone finance a faithful adaptation of a Greene novel. This project kicked around for years without gaining much traction, and had already been filmed in1958 as a disastrously butchered pro-American propagandist piece of garbage publicly denounced by Greene. After many years of attempts, Noyce became attached and brought his usual rounded efforts to create the picture he had had in him for many years. Throughout middling action-thrillers like Patriot Games and The Saint, Noyce had always shown a remarkable level of control and precision. He made thinking man’s thrillers that while never as developed narratively as they could have been, were so well made and properly told that you didn’t care as much as you should have. Here, he faithfully represents what Green wrote on the page by filming on primary location in Saigon and attempting to rightly place that mystical sense of atmosphere found only on the edge of war.
In a time where so much importance is being placed upon immediacy and a lack of technique, to see such careful and meticulous attention to construction, design and character is much like the feeling one gets while ill the moment a hot bowl of soup arrives. It is a genuine breath of fresh air and easily one of the best pictures to be released post 2000.
It almost wasn’t released at all. At Caine and Noyce’s repeated insistence, Mirimax finally allowed some festival showings and a limited 2002 release for Oscar consideration. They sat on it for some time, thinking that audiences would not react well to it in aftermath of September 2001. For box office this was correct reasoning, but it did not mean that they should roughly abandon the picture in its eventual 2002-2003 release or in its Oscar campaign. Caine gives one of his finest performances and arguably if not certainly should have finally won the golden statuette. But due to Mirimax not even deigning to send screeners to many voters, few ever saw the film neither in the Academy nor in the US theatrically. The film died a very early death and was sorely forgotten much too quickly.
EDIIONS: The DVD is fin, with a decent 16:9 transfer for its time. A few extras are included, the best being a commentary with Caine, Noyce and others. The sound is in both Dolby and DTS 5.1 with the DTS as always being a bit more forceful. A Blu-ray was released in the UK that had a DTS-HDMA 5.1 lossless audio track, but a woefully poor video transfer that seemed to be an upscale of a very old master. There has been no word of a US Blu-ray release, and one is sorely needed to faithfully reproduce the look and feel of this remarkable film, shot by the same cinematographer as many of Wong Kar-Wai’s films.