Quiet American Irony

Long before it opened nationwide in the United States, "The Quiet American" premiered in Vietnam to great fanfare. I saw it in Saigon last December, when the Vietnamese government literally rolled out the red carpet for director Phillip Noyce, actor Brendan Fraser and the press.

The reason? As one of the Vietnamese representatives put it during a reception for Noyce and Fraser before the screening, "It shows Americans as bad people in the Vietnam War."

Noyce winced at that comment and leaped up on stage to say, "Americans are not bad people. The movie is about an American with good intentions who made bad mistakes."

It's exactly that message that got the movie shelved in the United States for a year and a half. Made before 9/11, the film was nearly kept off the silver screen for good due to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

In the movie, British journalist Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine) warns young, naïve American CIA agent Alden Pyle (Fraser) not to get involved in the politics of Vietnam. Pyle ignores him, and his naiveté helps trigger a bombing that kills dozens of innocent people on the streets of Saigon and subsequently leads to his own murder. Pyle, who claims his action was for the entire world's "common good," seems to embody America's mistakes in Vietnam.

After 9/11, with an ongoing U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan and increasing moves toward war with Iraq, Miramax reportedly was afraid of offending a patriotic audience and put the film on hold. And so an American movie was hushed in its own homeland, a country that otherwise boasts of freedom of speech, and I had to return to the totalitarian country of my birth to see it.

In Vietnam, though government censorship is the rule, many Vietnamese are pushing the free speech envelope. Waves of political arrests in recent months have not deterred the will of those who want to push Vietnam toward true democracy. Some are making underground films that challenge totalitarianism.

But political activists who once looked toward the United States for a model of free speech and open society are weary and disappointed with America today.

In the United States, free speech is a constitutional right, but from government officials to corporation executives to filmmakers, self-censorship seems to be the name of the game. Creative expression, too, has suffered. When Colin Powell made his case against Iraq at the United Nations in New York recently, U.N. officials covered up a tapestry reproduction of Pablo Picasso's anti-war mural "Guernica." On Feb. 12, a poetry reading scheduled at the White House was canceled for fear that anti-war poems -- such as those by great poets like Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes -- might be read.

America has traditionally hurled contradictory views of itself abroad. The American eagle holds an olive branch in the talons of one foot and arrows in the other. We have the CIA and the Peace Corps, B-52 bombs and Disneyland, Jerry Falwell and MTV.

The world used to have a love-hate relationship with America. The love part has a lot to do with the power of Hollywood, which often takes our government down a peg or two. Think "X-files," "Rambo" and "Conspiracy Theory," to name just a few.

But abroad, more and more people see the American eagle clasping arrows in both claws, having dropped that olive branch somewhere along the way. The world's only superpower is a sovereign with permanent economic and political interests, and seems to boast far less idealism than ever before. It needs no apology, nor does it want any cinematic or poetic criticism any longer. It practically screeches its new motto across the globe: might makes right, baby.

That "The Quiet American" almost didn't make it to U.S. theaters -- and is now shown without a few scenes that referenced "American adventurism" -- worries me. At a time when security and surveillance threaten privacy and other civil liberties, I think art should be loud and challenging, not meek and hushed.

Besides, Hollywood underestimates the sophistication of the American audience. If anything, we hunger now more than ever for art that challenges the status quo. Pro-war or not, in a democracy we all need to lift that dark curtain off "Guernica." The day we are so insecure that we can't tolerate art that provokes and warns and asks questions is the day we begin to live under oppression.

Andrew Lam ( lam@pacificnews.org) is the associate editor at PNS and a recent Knight Fellow at Stanford University.

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