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THE QUIET AMERICAN ****

By GUY FLATLEY


CAST: Michael Caine, Brendan Fraser, Do Thi Hai Yen, Rade Serbedzija, Tzi Ma, Robert Stanton, Holmes Osborne, Pham Thi Mai Hoa, Quang Hai, Ferdinand Hoang

DIRECTOR: Phillip Noyce

SCREENWRITER: Christopher Hampton

An American who plans and participates in the slaughter of innocent foreigners deserves to be called a patriot if he has killed for a worthy cause, such as saving a nation--and perhaps the entire world--from domination by evildoers. This is the belief of Alden Pyle, a soft-spoken humanitarian who travels from the U.S. to Saigon in 1952 on a medical mission. That's the official story. The truth is that Pyle is with the CIA, and he has intense ties with stealthy military forces determined to rid Indo-China of communism.

Pyle, played by Brendan Fraser in his strongest performance since "Gods and Monsters," is one of three key figures in Phillip Noyce's swift, complex, emotionally devastating film of Graham Greene's novel about the role America played in the shaping of the events leading up to the Vietnam War. Even more compelling than Pyle--partly because he is acted with such subtlety and depth by the amazing Michael Caine--is Thomas Fowler, a morally numb, opium-addicted reporter who cheats on the wife he left behind in London with a live-in taxi dancer. Flattered by the interest Pyle takes in his writing, Fowler befriends the young man. Muddying their friendship, however, is Pyle's obvious infatuation with Fowler's mistress, Phuong (the dazzling Do Thi Hai Yen). Remaining true to character, the American decides to play God and liberate the Vietnamese woman from the possessive Brit, just as he strives to liberate her country from the communists and French colonialists. Brilliant as he is, Pyle has yet to learn that sexual war is hell.

There are those who will feel this is not the time for a movie that questions America's attempt to make a country over in its own likeness. According to reports in the press, Harvey Weinstein and others at Miramax came close to shelving "The Quiet American," and even director Noyce seemed resigned to seeing the movie dumped. Fortunately, Michael Caine, who apparently believes it's not a crime to question a superpower's penchant for nation-building, has been around long enough to have clout. That's why Academy members will have the chance to see his extraordinary performance in time for Oscar consideration.