Having caught the rather good Charlie Wilson’s War, starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, at the cinema last weekend, it reminded me very much of another film that probed the fallacies of American interventionist foreign policy, but set in a different period: Philip Noyce’s The Quiet American. Taken together, they are pretty different beasts. CWW is a witty, dryly amusing dissection of the origins of American support for Afghan rebels following the Soviet invasion of 1979. It has its sombre moments certainly, but on the whole it’s a satirical piece, and no less meaningful for it.
The Quiet American on the other hand is a drama, based on the classic Graham Green novel, about America’s increasing involvement in Vietnam in the 1950s. Unlike the more light-hearted approach of CWW, TQA has a sense of doom hanging over the story from the very beginning, when we see a corpse floating in a river. The political context of the film slowly develops, as we meet Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine on superb form), a married London journalist who lives in sin with his Vietnamese lover, Phuong (played by Do Thi Hai Yen). Their relationship turns in to a love triangle following the arrival of a young handsome American doctor, Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), who falls in love with the girl and promises to do the right thing by her if she will leave Fowler. Fate intervenes when it emerges Pyle’s reason for being there has a more sinister motive. The relationship between the three characters is a wonderful metaphor for the political situation of the time: Fowler representing the old colonial powers of yesteryear, Pyle the emerging superpower of tomorrow, America, and Phuong the colonised country caught between them, being used for the other countries’ political and economic ends.
They struck me as being bedfellows because of their examination of American foreign policy, specifically the same policy: to directly or indirectly fund local forces to help bring down a common enemy that is perceived to threaten American interests and security i.e. Communism. Both policies also came back to haunt America of course, in the shape of the Vietnam war and the rise of the Taleban. Of the two films, I preferred the brooding atmosphere of TQA; this is not to slight CWW however, as I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially Philip Seymour Hoffman’s caustic turn as an intelligence adviser.
So if you fancied an interesting double-bill of movies examining historical foreign policies of the twentieth century, you could do far worse than these two. I can’t say it would make a thrilling night’s entertainment I suppose, but then again one can’t snack on junk food all the time, can one…?