Film class — week 4

15 September 2006, 2046 EDT

Film #4 “The Quiet American” (2002). We viewed it Tuesday.

Readings for Thursday: Wilson, Woodrow, “Fourteen Points Speech,” 1918.

Kagan, Robert, “Power and Weakness,” Policy Review, June/July 2002, pp. 3-28.

After several films about World War II and discussion about political realism, it was time to move on to a film about a post-war conflict and liberal idealism. Wilson’s address, of course, is a classic statement of American liberalism. This is his conclusion:

An evident principle runs through the whole program I have outlined. It is the principle of justice to all peoples and nationalities, and their right to live on equal terms of liberty and safety with one another, whether they be strong or weak. Unless this principle be made its foundation no part of the structure of international justice can stand. The people of the United States could act upon no other principle; and to the vindication of this principle they are ready to devote their lives, their honor, and everything that they possess.

Realists like John Mearsheimer think this is essentially “cheap talk,” providing marketable cover for naked pursuit of interests and power.

In this film, the American Alden Pyle works somewhat covertly to create a “third force” in Vietnam independent of both the communists and the French colonialists. He talks often in the film about “liberty” and the “freedom to choose,” though he is obviously also interested in containing the communists. At one critical moment, Pyle declares, “It’s not that easy to remain uninvolved.” He emphasizes that his goal is to save Vietnam.

When Graham Greene wrote the The Quiet American, European states were losing their colonies and America was in a pre-eminent position of world power. The parallel to 2002 — when this film and Kagan’s article were released — is not perfect, but it is interesting. Kagan basically says that Europeans emphasize multilateralism and law over military force because they are weak. Americans and Europeans share essentially the same broad ideals. They are divided about power.

The film’s central conflict, concerning the fate of Vietnam and America’s role there, is not unlike the US-European divide over the fate of Iraq, and America’s role there.

In this film, at least at the beginning, the British reporter Thomas Fowler is made out to be a cynical European:

I offer no point of view. I take no action. I don’t get involved.

Of course, the French colonialists are involved in Vietnam and England still has a colonial empire. Given the action Fowler takes late in the movie to secure his own personal interests, viewers might be tempted to think of him as a realist critic of Pyle. On the other hand, after witnessing a horrific bombing in a public square, which he blames on Pyle, Fowler seems genuinely moved to principled action.

The bombing makes Pyle seem like a brute — perhaps even a terrorist. He seems to embrace illiberal means to achieve his supposed democratic goals.

Perhaps Fowler is the genuine idealist — and Pyle the realist? Maybe Fowler simply embraces order over ideals?

A personal conflict between the men mirrors (and complicates) the political tension. Pyle and Fowler compete for the affections of a beautiful young Vietnamese woman named Phuong. Their battle is framed in terms that directly coincide with the political struggles:

Let’s just look at Phuong. There’s beauty. There’s daughter of a professor.

Taxi dancer. Mistress of an older European man.

That pretty well describes the whole country.

Phuong is Fowler’s lover at the beginning of the movie, but is drawn to Pyle when Fowler’s personal deceits are revealed.

Which man wins in the end? Does either earn her love?

It’s a provocative and well-done film, but you’ll have to watch it to seek the answers to those questions.

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