Quiet Censorship in Hollywood
"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 Sept. 11, 2001, and previewed on Sept. 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.
But it's only audiences in Los Angeles and New York who will be given a chance to see the film and make these connections, and only for the two weeks required for academy consideration. Miramax apparently is still not convinced that a nationwide release backed up with a major-movie publicity campaign is a good idea. Director Noyce told the Times, "The big question is, Are they going to release it properly?" All Miramax will commit to now is a re-release in January, but only in New York and Los Angeles -- with wider release depending on what happens with the Oscars -- not to mention war in Iraq and anxieties about terrorism.
If a major star like Michael Caine, with a shot at Best Actor, has so much trouble persuading a Hollywood studio to release a film that criticizes US foreign policy of a half-century ago, what is happening to other films that somebody might consider unpatriotic or anti-American? We already know about another completed film now regarded as a problem: "Buffalo Soldiers", an antimilitary satire about the US Army in Germany in 1989, which one critic said "makes M*A*S*H look like a recruitment video." That's another one that Miramax acquired before 9/11 and then put on hold. Miramax told the Times it planned to release the film in March with a new voiceover by Joaquin Phoenix, but events in Iraq could change those plans.
If Caine does win the Oscar, greed will overcome fear at Miramax, and the film will get the distribution and promotion it deserves. But "The Quiet American" and "Buffalo Soldiers" were finished before they were shelved. We can only guess what's happening to film proposals and projects that haven't gone into production, that raise questions about or poke fun at the military, or foreign policy or "patriotism."
Caine was surprised when his film ran into trouble, but Graham Greene would have found this story all too familiar. The novelist, who died in 1991 at age 87, was denied a visa to visit the United States in 1952 because, although he was a well-known Catholic, the McCarran Act prohibited entry by any Communist or former Communist, and he had publicly stated that he had been a member of the Communist Party for a few weeks at Oxford when he was 19.
Eventually Greene was granted a three-month visa to go to Hollywood, where the film based on his novel "The End of the Affair" was in production. After arriving, he told friends he found the city to be living under a McCarthyite "reign of terror." In an interview with the New York Herald Tribune, he reminded Americans of FDR's statement, "The only thing to fear is fear itself," and then quoted Thomas Paine: "We should guard even our enemies against injustice." He was telling Americans that even Communists deserve justice; he'd probably make the same argument today about those suspected of "terrorist ties." Miramax and the other powers in Hollywood should ponder those arguments from the man whose work they are now touting for an Academy Award.
Jon Wiener is a contributing editor at the Nation.