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Don’t Ignore Quiet Americans

  The Quiet American is an extraordinarily important movie to see if you’re at all concerned about peace in the world and George W. Bush’s oily war machine.

  I saw it on what has become a day of enormous political significance in my life:

  Tuesday, March 4, 2003, 1:00 pm: my dentist replaces a decaying metallic filling with a white one. Believe me, this has metaphorical political significance.

  Tuesday, March 4, 2003, 2:45 pm: I walk from my dentist’s office to Tinseltown Cinemas to see Al Pacino and Colin Farrell’s new movie, The Recruit, and Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser’s The Quiet American. En route, I pass Covenant House on West Pender, a crisis intervention centre and residence for homeless and runaway youth, only to see Jean Chrétien’s entourage spilling onto the street with a dozen Vancouver city police officers and one lone anti-Olympics protestor. Inside the building, Chrétien is under the lights delivering a speech on government efforts to address homelessness [the text is in the Newroom section at http://pm.gc.ca]. One fascinating statement points to the irony in his use of that location: “the Province of British Columbia is also a key partner in our efforts to address homelessness and many other social and economic issues.” The covenant in our society between citizens and government to take care of the needy through a fair, progressive system of taxation, our social contract, is eroding before our apathetic eyes. In the last 22 months, the BC Liberals have trimmed almost $2 billion from health, education and care for our weak, aged, handicapped and disenfranchised, all while delivering a tax cut that has overwhelmingly eased the tax burden of the richest British Columbians.

  Tuesday, March 4, 2003, 3:10 pm: after 10 minutes of ads and previews of bad movies opening in the next few months, The Recruit begins. While not quite having the compellingly surprising plot intrigue of The Usual Suspects or The Spanish Prisoner or the surprising political poignancy of the latest Bond film, The Recruit successfully explores the notion of lies and truth, not via exploring the gray area in between but by constantly flipping notions of black and white, lies and truth, mistrust and faith. Pacino’s eyes maintain a sense of intensity during his stylistic monologues I’ve rarely seen since Serpico, while Farrell at times comes close to that level as well, but he’s still young. Pacino’s character’s introduction of why the new CIA recruits wish to be there rests ultimately on their faith in the moral sanctity of the American Way [as truth] and the immoral demonism of America’s enemies [as lies]. Within that context, instead of negotiating life in a world of gray morality and truth, we flip from one side’s version of truth to another’s, always unsure of where we stand.

  Monday, March 3, 2003, 2:53 pm: flashing back a day to an email press release [no longer available on the Pentagon's website] from the American Forces Press Service that reports four North Korean planes intercept an American Air Force reconnaissance plane in international airspace off North Korea. They North Korean aircraft are reported to have come within 400 feet and locked fire-support radar on the US plane.

  Tuesday, March 4, 2003, 9:26 am: the Pentagon releases an amended press release indicating that not only did the planes close to 400 feet, it was actually 50 feet! More odd, though, is that the reported North Korean radar lock only “may have” occurred. To me, a radar lock seems like a binary condition, like being pregnant or not. Radar is either locked on you, according to your instruments that detect such things, or it is not. What is black and what is white? What is truth and what is a lie? Who are we to have faith in? Can we trust corporate media or its military sources?

  Wednesday, February 26, 2003, 8:40 am: in another American Forces Press Service email, the US assistance secretary of defense for media affairs, Victoria Clark, reports that “cooperation between major media outlets and the Pentagon has been extraordinarily close in recent months to determine how best to facilitate news coverage” of the upcoming war in Iraq, including live battlefield coverage on major media networks. Forget the lack of independence and objectivity in Pentagon media pools in the first Gulf War, it seems even closer now.

  August, 1964: US President Johnson escalates American military involvement in Vietnam in response to a fictitious Pentagon report [sorry, a lie] of a North Vietnamese attack on Americans in the Gulf of Tonkin. Lies. Truth. Patriotism? Blind Faith? Media collusion?

  Tuesday, March 4, 2003, 4:55 pm: back to the present--after 10 minutes of ads and previews of bad movies opening in the next few months--The Quiet American starts. The story is of Michael Caine’s character, a British journalist in 1950’s Saigon; Phuong, his Vietnamese mistress; and an American “aid” worker who falls in love with her. At least as critical of American foreign policy in southeast Asia as Marlon Brando’s 1963 The Ugly American, this movie is a masterpiece of navigating in the grays. While The Recruit kept teasing us into investing in a constantly flipping black and white dichotomy, The Quiet American acknowledges the sludge of grays in politics and morality. Caine’s performance as Fowler is profound and subtle as a wise, observant, seasoned, pragmatic chronicler of the shift from one colonial power in the region [France] to another [USA]. Phuong and her sister are almost wholly developed characters, as opposed to being left as geisha-like stereotypes [see Good Morning, Vietnam]. But Brendan Fraser’s character, Pyle, is fascinating. I once heard the United States described as the guy at the party who gives everybody cocaine, but still nobody likes him. I also heard the USA called a big, friendly dog that wags its tail in glee, yet knocks over lamps in the process. Fraser’s Pyle is this kind of character, on the surface. He’s a benign government worker with an eyes-wide-open naïve/ignorant/innocent [take your pick], sponge-like desire to learn about the world he’s landed in. Yet he also has surprisingly strong, assertive and timely skills with a machine gun, and a fluency in Vietnamese that he lies about early on. He’s even so off-putting as to virtually propose to Caine’s mistress in front of him; think about him as the naïve, well-meaning, bumbling, harmless Gomer Pyle from the 1960’s. Quite the buffoon. But he’s CIA, greasing America’s way into what became a distasteful police action through the third quarter of the 20th century. During an American orchestrated “communist terrorist” bombing of civilians in Saigon, while Fowler roams among maimed bodies of men, women and children, Pyle calmly wipes blood from the cuff of his pants; this time, think of the coldly, sociopathic Fraser character as Private Leonard “Gomer Pyle” Lawrence from Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket as he cracks in an overnight bathroom murder-suicide.

  Wednesday, November 20, 2002: think also of George W. Bush, the bumbling, naïve, maybe a little slow, maybe functionally illiterate, maybe moron. That’s the day François Ducros, Chrétien’s press secretary is overheard calling Bush a moron. Though Chrétien doesn’t fire her, she eventually resigns. Mark Miller, a professor of NYU, has studied Bush’s verbal errors and concludes, “he's incapable of empathy. He has an inordinate sense of his own entitlement, and he's a very skilled manipulator. And in all the snickering about his alleged idiocy, this is what a lot of people miss.” He appears a moron, but he uses it as a cover, much as Brendan Fraser’s Pyle does in The Quiet American.

  Wednesday, February 26, 2003: Liberal MP Carolyn Parrish mutters, “Damn Americans. I hate those bastards” after a lobby press scrum in the Commons fielding questions on the upcoming Iraq war. While she has apologized for offending people, and while she’s received thousands of email complaints from Americans, she says she’s also received many supportive comments from Americans who fear being so publicly critical of their own country for fear of retribution against their lack of patriotism.

  Thursday, December 12, 2002: Jon Wiener writes in The Nation that The Quiet American, though finished and previewed just before 9/11, has been the victim of Hollywood distribution censorship because of its perceived anti-American, critical sentiment. Odd: director Phillip Noyce also directed the not even remotely anti-American movies, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger.

  Tuesday, March 4, 2003, 7:00 pm: leaving Tinseltown, I walk past the Queen Elizabeth Theatre to join the 100 protestors [watched by sometimes 12, sometimes 30 Vancouver police] against the Iraq War and the 2010 Olympics. My favorite phrases include, “Hey, hey IOC; Salzburg is the place to be!” and “People not parties!” My tooth and filling hurt mildly as the numbing subsides, but I’m pleased because a mouthful of 1970’s silver fillings looks worse than slowly replacing them with white ones. Much like a surface observation of Fraser’s Pyle character, my dentist says that the white ones don’t last as long as the silver. Looks can be deceiving.

Stephen Buckley
Copyright 2003

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