> Volume 5 > Number 10

Volume 5, Number 10

This Week's Reviews:  The Quiet American, The Life of David Gale.

This Week's Omissions:  The Guru.

Capsule Reviews:  Bringing Down the House, Cradle 2 the Grave.

Phillip Noyce

Michael Caine
Brendan Fraser
Do Thi Hai Yen
Rade Serbedzija
Tzi Ma
Robert Stanton
Quang Hai

Release: 22 Nov. 02

The Quiet American


"This is the patent age of new inventions
For killing bodies, and for saving souls,
All propagated with the best intentions."
    --Lord Byron, Don Juan
    (Quoted by Graham Greene in The Quiet American)

Most Americans certainly see the Vietnam War as a proxy conflict in the Cold War. The interventionism seems (retrospectively) acceptable under the umbrella of an international Red Scare. What is often lost, though, is the past of Vietnam in the 20th century and its threadbare attempts to survive in a postcolonial world.

Graham Greene's novel The Quiet American, written in 1955, was an early effort in unveiling the American presence in one nation's fight for independence. When Greene tackled Franco-American-Vietnamese relations, Dien Bien Phu was merely a year in the past, and Vietnam looked to be on the verge of reunification under the banner of Diem and Minh. Greene, however, noticed the odd way Americans were pitted in the middle of the affair. Even before the pangs of communism looked probable in North Vietnam, there was a bit of U.S. interventionism involved, even if it meant hurting the French establishment in their colonial possession.

The novel, which follows fictional British journalist Thomas Fowler during the war with France, became an invaluable guide for anyone trying to cover the Vietnam affair for any news organization. Not only did the book work with the history of Vietnam before the Vietnam War, but it also established something important in the mind of those who read it: no one in this conflict is free of blame, no one can be fully trusted.

Greene's work was indeed prescient, though the perfection of his foresight may finally be equated by Philip Noyce, who made a new film version of The Quiet American (it was previously filmed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz in 1958) that comes just as America dabbles again with interventionism. Filmed in 2001, Miramax chose to shelve the film after its semi-anti-American sentiment became a problem in the post-11 September 2001 atmosphere.

However, having a film about America's quiet interference in the affairs of other nations seems more pertinent now, as war in Iraq begins, than it would have seemed during the beginning of the Afghani conflict. Noyce's film immediately becomes important because it is the only current film other than Bowling for Columbine dealing directly with the problems inherent in such a policy (whether the end product gives merit to such force is in the eye of the beholder). While Noyce's (and, thus, Greene's) anger is aimed at the meddling Americans, it is also important to note that the film makes no secret of the deals made by both sides in Vietnam or the self-serving apathy of the rest of the West. In The Quiet American, no one's hands are truly clean.

The Greene conceit -- a symbolic love triange -- serves the film version well by the casting of three actors who seem molded to meet the symbols they represent. Brash but lanky enough to seem goofy and innocuous, Brendan Fraser's Alden Pyle, the mysterious American of the title, plays a fool with grand intentions -- not for a moment does his humanistic approach to interventionism seem rotten in his mind. And, certainly, it wouldn't: he is, after all, meant as the embodiment of the good-intentioned American presence in Indochina, as well as a perhaps unintentional proxy for current American forces abroad.

He is perfectly balanced by Michael Caine's Fowler, who is very much the opportunist Brit who Greene criticized nearly as aggressively as the American. Caine, pitching every line of dialogue with weight but the least amount of pretense, delivers one of his finest performances. Most of the film is through Fowler's eyes, which makes him -- faults and all -- the closest thing the audience comes to understanding 1950s Saigon. His approach to the character is said to be an intentional emulation of Greene himself, helping to understand the quizzical sorrow Greene felt for his British cad in the face of growing impotence.

In between is Do Thi Hai Yen as Phuong, the Vietnamese dancer dependent on Fowler for money and Pyle for his reputation. Though her performance becomes an afterthought, the achievement is still very much present. Without the strong Vietnamese native to be fought over by the old colonial and the new colonial -- both treating her as a stupid child -- Fowler's distress over Pyle's defiance of his own code of ethics would seem less like the culmination of a growing incapacity among the European colonials and more like the pining of a lothario.

If the film lacks the impact of Greene's novel, the reason is not the fault of Noyce and screenwriters Christopher Hampton and Robert Schenkkan, but instead in the ambiguity it sets in. While the film is latched to a setting with a defined beginning, middle, and end seen through hindsight, its impressions are still waiting to be understood. Like Remains of the Day -- arguably the last great critique of colonialism, both in literature and film -- this is a work that captures the essence of an ethical and social belief that seemed mighty understandable at their moment. Time, however, will be the true critic -- maybe in a few years we'll finally come to terms with our own quiet, scheming, violent, but well-meaning Americanism.

©2003, David Perry,, 7 March 2003

Alan Parker

Kate Winslet
Kevin Spacey
Gabriel Mann
Laura Linney
Matt Craven
Leon Rippy
Rhona Mitra

Release: 21 Feb. 03

The Life of David Gale


In my mind there are three types of political films. First are those in which the filmmakers take their politics and hide them within a story with implications reaching much further than the politicizing. Then there are those that preach their beliefs loudly and proudly by making a strong -- if biased -- case for their side of the issue. And lastly -- and most definitely least -- are those films that turn politicking into a cartoon by bringing taking any disagreeing talking point and showing it as being of no merit whatsoever.

The difference between the second type of film and the third type might seem slight, but in fact they can be the unique difference between a good film and a bad film. For a direct example of this, compare Dead Man Walking, a film that vocally opposes the death penalty, and The Life of David Gale, a film that seemingly opposes it but is so haphazardly put together that I'm not really sure.

Most of America remains pro-capital punishment. No president since Jimmy Carter has taken a opposed it. I, your humble narrator, while in disagreement with its current form, am for it. Dead Man Walking and The Life of David Gale are taking unpopular stances and they deserve to be viewed as a chance for those in disagreement to learn something, to rethink what they stand for.

After seeing Dead Man Walking, I was in deep introspective mode. The film doesn't preach, but instead merely imparts. Watching that film, any audience member, liberal or conservative, is taken in by what director Tim Robbins was saying: that state- sponsored killing, even in punishment for the criminal of a violent double murder, is wrong. Agree or disagree, this was a merited statement given with conviction but no absolute disdain for those in disagreement.

No one is going to feel that way after seeing The Life of David Gale, which paints everything so black and white that one forgets there are people in the world who actually support capital punishment other than some kook southerners who know little about debate, philosophy, or manners. In Alan Parker's film, the pro-death penalty contingent is essentially the loony bin of backwards George W. Bush facsimiles. The audience that might learn something from the film will be so astounded by its moral superiority complex that they will tune the rest of the work out.

Not that this really matters when you take into account the rest of the film, which tries desperately to give merit to the anti-death penalty movement through any means possible. The end product, however, is so ideologically extreme that even they look like loons. In The Life of David Gale, the anti-capital punishment movement seems as reprehensible and irrational as those protesters who kill abortionists. By the end of the movie -- as most of those involved smugly smile because they think they've made a great sermon against capital punishment -- no one who has a vocal opinion in this matter seems the least amount coherent.

David Gale (Spacey), the could-be martyr for the bleeding-heart liberal, is a philosophy professor and well known anti-death penalty advocate who finds himself on death row for the rape and murder of fellow abolitionist Constance Harraway (Linney). With four days left, he explains his plight to Bitsey Bloom (Winslet), a cynical reporter for News magazine who becomes obsessed with proving Gale's innocence before he is tragically put to death. In the opening of the film, we already learn that this is going to be dependent on her running a marathon from her broken-down car to save him from lethal injection. It's a thriller's cliché placed in a political diatribe. Costa-Gavras would be proud of the idea but horrified by the execution.

The Life of David Gale continues a downward spiral for Kevin Spacey, an actor of rich virtue for a decade before becoming everyone's favorite tortured soul in 2000. I, for one, am sick and tired of the "like me, please, like me" Kevin Spacey from Pay It Forward, The Shipping News, K-Pax, and The Life of David Gale. What happened to the caustic, multi-dimensional cads he once played to character actor prominence? His work in American Beauty, though not quite at the same level of sardonic genius as his earlier work, was still different from the tragic authority figure he consistently plays now. One almost begins to think he is paid by the audience tears shed.

Parker is certainly not new to this type of storytelling. Especially in Mississippi Burning, it has been his forte to take stances with the conviction and boisterousness of an evangelist. The striking problem to his films, though, is not that he wants the audience to come to his side, but that he seems to be without any belief that there is another side for them to come from.

You get the impression while watching this film that there is no debate on this issue. This is a movie that preaches to the choir without the understanding that there are possible parishioners looking for answers outside the theatre. It's the worst way to make a political movie: you disenfranchise the people who need to hear your opinion. But, then again, I get the distinct feeling that Parker and screenwriter Charles Randolph have no interest in bringing the uninitiated parishioners into any form of debate. Their stance is the law, and they will do anything (including making their own side like a collection of crazy ideologues) to keep it from being questioned. I'm sure they also think that their movie is unquestionably good. Of course, considering my disclosure of my feelings on the death penalty at the beginning of this review, I doubt they would have read this far anyway.

©2003, David Perry,, 7 March 2003


Bringing Down the House

Bringing Down the House should get some form of notice for supporting both racism and racial understanding in the same rant. Queen Latifah gets to play the treacherous ex-con, a Chicago's Mama wearing Aunt Jemima clothing. Sure, the final resolution to the film is that racial devides can be overcome and emulation (of black or white culture) should not be forced, but this isn't terribly different from the laws passed in the 1880s, in which veiled racial superiority became all the rage.

Adam Shankman

Steve Martin
Queen Latifah
Eugene Levy
Joan Plowright
Jean Smart

Release: 7 Mar. 03

©2003, David Perry,, 7 March 2003
Cradle 2 the Grave

Cradle 2 the Grave proves that a nifty opening to a film can go terribly wrong if put in the hands of the wrong people. Though not as eye popping -- or seductive -- as Brian De Palma's opening jewel heist in Femme Fatale, the heist in Cradle 2 the Grave seems to point towards a film that might be above the common thriller clichés. Soon my expectations are shattered when the film gets as loud, obnoxious, annoying, and boring as costar Tom Arnold.

Andrzej Bartkowiak

Jet Li
Anthony Anderson
Gabrielle Union
Tom Arnold

Release: 28 Feb. 03

©2003, David Perry,, 7 March 2003

Reviews by:
David Perry