The Quiet American, which recently opened for a two-week run in a couple of theaters in New York and Los Angeles, illustrates just how far Hollywood self-censorship has gone in the year since 9/11. The film about Americans in colonial Indochina in 1952 stars Michael Caine in what a dozen critics have called the greatest role of his lifetime and a likely Academy Award winner for Best Actor. It was finished before September 11, 2001, and previewed on September 10 to an audience that reportedly loved it. But after 9/11, distributor Miramax shelved the film; Harvey Weinstein, Miramax co-chairman, told the New York Times the studio concluded that “you can’t release this film now; it’s unpatriotic. America has to be cohesive and band together. We were worried that nobody had the stomach for a movie about bad Americans anymore.”
Miramax released the film in two cities for two weeks only because Caine mobilized all his considerable clout to argue that the film could make Miramax a lot of money if he won the award for Best Actor–which requires a one-week commercial run in LA to qualify for the Academy Awards. Time film critic Richard Corliss wrote that Caine “is guaranteed a nomination” for an Oscar, which certainly helped persuade Miramax.
In the Best Actor campaign now under way, Caine protests that neither he nor the film is anti-American. “I wouldn’t make an anti-American movie–I’m one of the most pro-American foreigners I know,” he told interviewers. “I love America and Americans.” The director, Phillip Noyce, is not exactly Michael Moore–he made Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, two Tom Clancy patriotic war movies that earned nearly $400 million worldwide.
But The Quiet American follows Graham Greene’s novel in exposing and criticizing the roots of America’s war in Vietnam. In particular, one scene depicts a US-sponsored terrorist car-bombing in central Saigon–which really happened and which has some implications for the Bush Administration’s list of “state sponsors of terrorism.”
The parallels between the plot of the film and plans for war with Iraq today are equally striking. An innocent, energetic young American (played by Brendan Fraser) is sent to a faraway land of suffering and political turmoil. He believes in democracy and freedom, and he wants to help, but he doesn’t know much about the place. The quiet American finds people who seem to be good guys and gives them money and weapons to support their effort to make their country free. But good intentions lead to bad results, innocent people are killed, and the United States is drawn into a decade of war. Although the film was finished more than a year before George Bush began arguing for unilateral action in Iraq, the arguments have an uncanny similarity.
Even more striking is the parallel between Americans in the film in 1952 criticizing French weakness in Indochina and Bush officials in Washington today criticizing European doubts about war with Iraq. “The French aren’t going to stop the Communists,” the quiet American says. “They haven’t got the brains, and they haven’t got the guts.” Change that to “The UN isn’t going to stop Saddam,” and you’ve got a Rumsfeld press conference about why we should go it alone in Iraq. The film shows how arguments like that can lead to disaster.