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By James Arnold

Americans, Sincere and Ambiguous




The role of American power and activism internationally is a controversial issue around the planet this year. Coincidentally, two major dramatic movies come down on opposite sides of the argument.

The Quiet American, which offered likable veteran Michael Caine, 68, his shot at a best actor Oscar, is based on the 1952 Graham Greene novel. The American of the title is a sincere bungler who brings disaster while helping the Vietnamese shake off the French without succumbing to the Communists. Remarkably prophetic of the years to come, the story offers the essentially skeptical European view of America’s good intentions.

In contrast, in Tears of the Sun, set in Africa a half-century later, a group of Navy SEALS is ordered to stand by and not get involved during a civil war. But they decide to use their military skills to save the innocent from torture and death. This is presented as a noble, if pretty risky, intervention.


THE QUIET AMERICAN (A-4, R) is set in the early Cold War 1950s when the U.S. was inexperienced and naïve in the skills of espionage and secret mischief. It was shot in Vietnam by Aussie director Philip Noyce.

Greene’s love story is about the rivalry of two men for Phuong, a beautiful Vietnamese woman in Saigon. The young American, Pyle (Brendan Frasier), barges in on the long relationship she has with Fowler (Caine), a married British journalist.

But Fowler’s Catholic wife back in England won’t give him a divorce. (Note the Greene-ish irony: The unseen woman’s loyalty to her vows, practically her only Christian quality, is the cause of misery.) In truth, Fowler’s obsessive love for Phuong is practically the only thing keeping him alive.

Fowler realizes that the charming but boyish Pyle, who appears to know his way around the country and actually saves Fowler’s life, is a key C.I.A. operative.

Like King David in the Bible story, Fowler reluctantly betrays Pyle and finds his death morally agonizing. He’s left with the girl and the guilt: “I just feel I want to apologize to someone.” You know Caine’s thoughts, doubts and suffering: It’s a career performance.


TEARS OF THE SUN (A-3, R) is the quintessential movie about Americans rescuing the weak from their tormentors. Hardbitten Lt. Waters (Bruce Willis) and his team are sent to extract an American doctor (Monica Bellucci) and some Catholic missionaries from a bush hospital in danger from rampaging rebels. (Think Rwanda.)

Trouble is, the religious won’t leave their patients and helpers. The doc won’t go either unless Waters promises to take her mobile patients along on the helicopters.

The stoic, emotionally inhibited Waters seems unmovable. With his men, he defies orders and leads the doc and her helpless African followers (including the hope for the future, the surviving son of the murdered tribal king) through the photogenic jungle. (The actual location is Hawaii.)

This is a dark, violent film with some noble sacrifices and a humane ending that lifts the spirits like the soaring African music on the track. Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) honestly shows the horror of tribal brutality but keeps the light low and the cameras discreet.

Quiet and Tears, films aimed at different audiences with vastly different viewpoints, are well-mounted, conceived and acted. Greene’s troubled Brit hero, involved with love, politics and God, is more complex. But Willis and his hard-nosed SEALS are The Magnificent Seven one more time, the embodiment of a lasting American movie myth that the strong find redemption in defending the weak against the forces of darkness.

But too much moral fervor can be a bad thing. It’s just not always as clear in real life as it is in the movies who the bad guys are, and if they have to be blown away.


THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE (A-3, R): The central characters—bright, sympathetic anti-death-penalty advocates in high-execution Texas—are a likely lure to this movie for Catholics. They’re played by the likes of Kevin Spacey and Laura Linney, who are to acting what the New York Philharmonic is to music. But they’re a classic case of too much moral fervor.

Spacey’s Gale is a hotshot college philosophy prof and Death Watch spokesman. He has somehow wound up on Death Row himself for the rape and murder of Constance (Linney), a fellow prof, close friend and adviser. A week before his execution date, he grants interviews to a famous magazine journalist, Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet in top American-accent form).

What we see, intercut with Bitsey’s dialogues with Gale and her own investigations, are extended flashbacks that eventually put all the jigsaw pieces of how-and-why together. Bitsey becomes convinced Gale is the victim of an elaborate frame-up.

This will-she-stop-the-execution-in-time white-knuckler has a couple of major twists that damage the film morally. Writer Charles Randolph and socially conscious director Alan Parker (Mississippi Burning, Come See the Paradise) keep the mystery/suspense balls in the air while sliding in gloomy details and ironies about capital punishment, especially in Texas.

Many splendid moments are provided by Winslet and Spacey as Gale, who talks with eloquence (both sober and drunk) on subjects ranging from Socrates to St. Jude and how he became the patron of lost causes. We also see that it rains in Texas a lot. Too entangled in its plots, but good pros provide a boost; moral issues abound; not especially recommended.


WHAT WOULD JESUS DRIVE? You can get into trouble asking a question like this, as the National Council of Churches discovered a while ago in its controversial ad campaign to protect the environment from gas-guzzlers.

Yes, Jesus and his disciples walked a lot. So did St. Francis. Other than horses and mules, they had limited options. You guess they would have driven if given a chance.

You can imagine a saint in a lot of vehicles, depending on the times they lived in, probably even an SUV. In any case, be careful opening that door (using Jesus as a celebrity in endorsement ads). This may be the place where the “What would Jesus do?” movement should just say no.


ARE YOU HOT, REALITY SHOWS? Audiences enjoy seeing real people contend for rewards. They like the contest, whatever it is, and also like picking favorites and unfavorites. Can any culture that gets excited about pro wrestling surprise us with this choice? Some of these shows—featuring bugs, betrayal, sexual games—are degrading. The closer to actual athletic or talent competitions they are, the more normal and intriguing.

A certain cruelty seems built even into talent shows, where the emphasis is on who is going to be rejected, who is going to lose, who is going to be banished from the bloody island. The reality trend is not helpful for audiences oriented to art and the word, those looking for wit, insight, fresh characters, comment on our times. These may accidentally turn up on reality shows. But they’re more likely to come from people who have the gift, who write and act for a living.

Catholics enjoy or hate them just like everyone else. (One exception maybe: The shows that purport to be preliminaries to marriage—bachelors, bachelorettes, meeting the parents, etc.—further trivialize a troubled institution. If this is the way to pick spouses, even in jest, no wonder marriages don’t last.) As for the kids, let’s not think about what they’re learning about success and happiness in this culture.


AARON BROWN (CNN NewsNight): Since he made his mark with emergency coverage on 9/11, Aaron Brown has become a happy addition to big-opportunity TV journalists—that is, the anchors, usually white males, who bring us the news daily on the major networks. Brown has taken some getting used to. But as I write and he deals with the stresses of the war in Iraq, he’s shown unique talents.

Brown seems not to be from the Ed Murrow tradition—hard, factual, objective, maybe impersonal. The word for Brown is humane. He’s the first to succeed at it, really. Most humane, casual, folksy electronic reporters have tended to be biased, brainless egomaniacs.

Brown is a pro. He asks good questions, offers clever commentary at times, seems actually to have a mind that functions outside the parameters of news. Who else would have quoted Julius Caesar on the day of the invasion? He also seems nonpolitical. He comes on like the brother we’ve always respected and trusted. The anchor role has been gently adjusted—upward.


SAYING AU REVOIR: This is my final column. The point in this space has always been to find the best available shows every month, or at least the ones that deserved some sliver of praise or outrage, and to approach them with some balance and humor and not too much piety. Neither movies nor television are as bright and wonderful as they once were, but then who is? There’s always hope every time the lights go down. I’ll see you again in other places, at other times.

So good night, Fellini. You were the best. Rest easy, Woody, Spike and Ingmar, and the two Stanleys: Kubrick and Donen. You’ve astonished us so many times. You, too, promising newcomer Alex Payne, and old-timer John Ford, with your Irish sarcasm and soft heart, and Alfie Hitchcock, of the poutful lips and Jesuit scruples. There are far too many of you to say private farewells to, not to mention all the readers and watchers out there in the dark, searching for fun and God in the movies.

And on the tube, too: Give my regards to President Bartlet and Jim Lehrer; M*A*S*H’s gentle Father Mulcahy and Hawkeye, that wry seeker of truth; and the gang at St. Elsewhere and Hill Street Blues. Also the embattled parish staff at Nothing Sacred, and of course to Kermit the Frog and our neighbor Mister Rogers. And finally, good night to our friends, Francis and Clare, who are always close by wherever we are.

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