So you're a big movie producer and I'm a struggling screenwriter. Here's my pitch: The government sends a young, fresh-faced American to a far-off land in the midst of political turmoil. His mission: Make sure the good guys win. He can't speak the language, hasn't studied the culture. In fact, he hasn't really asked the people what they want. But he knows that America is right. So he gives money and weapons to the good guys and tries to help them remake the country in America's image. Before long, our military is deeply involved. Our soldiers are dying, and Americans begin to question why the young man was ever sent there in the first place.
This is perfect, you say. With the United States mired in Afghanistan and about to go to war with Iraq, this story touches on everything Americans are worried about today. Why hasn't someone made this movie already?
In fact, someone has. Australian director Phillip Noyce's film adaptation of Graham Greene's 1955 novel, "The Quiet American," is set in Saigon during the early years of America's involvement in Vietnam. Starring Brendan Fraser as a young American intelligence officer, the film critically examines the U.S. role in Vietnam's civil war. Ultimately, the title character is implicated in acts of terrorism that result in the deaths of innocent Vietnamese; under the guise of a U.S. medical aid program, he imports the plastics used to make the bombs. "The Quiet American" has been finished for more than a year, and it was a hit at the Toronto Film Festival. Critics at home and abroad have raved.
But Americans still can't see it.
The film was first previewed in this country on Sept. 10, 2001, and the audience reportedly loved it. The next day, on Sept. 11, the world was turned upside down, and "The Quiet American" lost its voice. Worried about possible negative reactions to the film among American audiences, the producers postponed the film's release indefinitely. Miramax executives reasoned that Americans wouldn't accept a portrayal of a fellow citizen in anything other than a positive light.
It's true, "The Quiet American" is not an easy film to watch. It may force you to question your beliefs about America. But it is hardly anti-American. The title character's deep dedication to freedom and justice is never questioned. In fact, in the novel, the narrator writes of the naive officer, "I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused." The quiet American genuinely wants to help the Vietnamese -- but he ends up burning the village in order to save it.
Today, America's role in the world is being debated as never before. Are we to be the world's police officer, or should we retreat and focus exclusively on defending a homeland under siege? War seems imminent, and an administration that once expressed disdain for nation-building now speaks of regime change. "The Quiet American" is just the sort of film Americans should see as we debate the policy options our leaders have put forth.
Under pressure from Michael Caine -- whose performance in the film has been called the best of his career -- Miramax has agreed to a limited opening of "The Quiet American" in the United States to ensure that the film will qualify for the Academy Awards. But to really succeed, it needs a nationwide release and the full backing of the studio.
Do Miramax executives actually believe American audiences can't stomach critical assessments of U.S. foreign policy? Do they really think we're too weak to handle a healthy debate about America's motives and methods overseas? Americans are stronger than Miramax seems to think. In fact, our willingness to question our leaders without fear is the very essence of our patriotism. It is time to let "The Quiet American" speak.
The writer is a student at Harvard Law School. His first book, "Another Quiet American," a memoir of his time in Laos, will be published in spring 2003.