A love triangle between an older, British journalist; his beautiful Vietnamese lover and an American CIA agent -- set in the mid nineteen-fifties and based on the Graham Greene novel written in that time -- it is a prescient account of the warring factions and mindsets that sowed the seeds for the Vietnam War.
OSCAR nominee for Best Actor (Caine)
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Watching this film remind yourself it was released in 2002 – based on a novel that was published in the mid-fifties; long before Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon; and long before any ‘direct’ American involvement in Vietnam. And yet here they are: all the main players: Alden Pyle (Fraser) – a CIA agent posing as an American Aid worker – bringing glasses to the poor to help them see. And what should they see?
The big picture – world communism at war with democracy -- Graham Greene had seen enough of the world to call communism and democracies bluff. They are both systems, machines: built for people, by people but all too often steamrolling over people instead of helping them.
Greene’s jaded, journalist Thomas Fowler (Caine) has seen it all: “So you give them democracy and they vote for Ho Chi Minh (leader of the communists) – it’s not so easy”; he tells Pyle. Fowler meets Pyle where you meet everyone – at the Continental. Fowler is a reporter – he tells the straight facts and offers no opinion. Pyle presents himself as an idealistic young, aid worker. First impressions are wonderful.
Once he arrives in Phat Diem, with French soldiers, they are startled to find Pyle motoring along the river in a boat to join them. The “aid worker” nearly gets his head blown off. But once this crisis is parleyed they walk into the village and discover a massacre – scores of people executed and lying in silence. It is doubly haunting to read this was an actual event and that Greene witnessed it first hand. Fowler can’t believe this is the work of the communists – “it is not in their interests”. (On this score ‘Fowlergreene’ may have been naïve -- in war, killing is in everyone's interest.) He sees a third hand.
Fowler believes Pyle is using Thé to demonize the communists and is turning a blind eye to the massacre and a subsequent bombing in Saigon. (-- True or false it bears a striking resemblance to the Kennedy backed coup in 1963 that felled a weak democracy and put in place a military government in the South).
But we are torn: Pyle is young and brave and if he is not entirely truthful he wants the best for Phuong, and Vietnam. He may be wrong but he is sincere; and he is sincerely in love with Phuong. Yet so is Thomas: Thomas may be right on the big issue but has lied to Phuong – he has told her his wife will give him a divorce, she will not. When Thomas is caught out on this Pyle comforts Phuong and takes her in and means to marry her.
In a strange way the story comes down to the lies we tell others vs. the lies we tell ourselves. (The film begins with Pyle’s death – Fowler has something to do with it.) Fowler has lied: to keep his girl, his cozy life that will never be cozy again. Pyle has lied almost without knowing it – he has lied to himself. He has sacrificed all that reason tells him on the altar of an ideal. Sacrifice a few more lives and save a belief -- he is an idealist; Fowler is a realist. One’s is a crime of the heart and the other’s is simply, sadly a crime. (Fiction tells us there are stiffer sentences for one vs. the other – life tells us 'not always').
I love the wartorn characters and motives and the voiceover’s giving us Greene’s incomparable prose. Philip Noyce’s direction is thrilling. The story, acting, cinematography and sets – filmed in Vietnam -- stand quite on their own. It is a sad, haunting, classic film no matter what your politics.