The Power but No Glory

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When great nations have grand plans, the little people know to run for cover. In the early '50s, Americans had the notion to save Vietnam from communism; by the end of their crusade, 2 million Vietnamese were dead. In the 1930s, Australian settlers ruled that half-caste Aborigines were to be removed from their homes and raised by whites; this policy of eugenics by abduction, which continued until 1970, left generations of indigenous people literally and culturally orphaned. In each case, white people pursued social experiments they considered noble, and darker people suffered.

The director Phillip Noyce has made two new films — The Quiet American from Graham Greene's 1955 novel and Rabbit-Proof Fence — that dramatize these roiling issues. Both films are cast as adventures; Noyce, who directed the Tom Clancy thrillers Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, is a master at encasing political messages in action and passion. The result is a pair of films that are both pointed and poignant.

The Quiet American's central trio — an English reporter (Michael Caine), his Vietnamese mistress (Do Thi Hai Yen) and the young U.S. official (Brendan Fraser) who comes between them — represents the Europeans, Vietnamese and Americans who danced on a slippery geopolitical slope that led straight into the Big Muddy. But they are mainly three points on a triangle of love, lust and rancor in a land where emotion, no less than pan-national idealism, revs the heart rate and clouds the vision. Steal a man's woman or connive in a faraway nation's destiny at your peril. Bedfellows make strange politics in this cautionary tale, which is as thoughtful as it is handsomely acted. Caine's subtle, bold performance should guarantee him an aisle seat on Oscar night.

Rabbit-Proof Fence is the true story of three Aboriginal girls yanked from their families to learn English prayers and Stephen Foster songs. The eldest, Molly, 14 (the gifted Everlyn Sampi), determines to take the two others home — a 1,200-mile walk along the fence that provides their only map. If Quiet American is a love story, this is a chase movie (Simon Legree after three Little Evas) across parched outback terrain, captured with rapturous authenticity by cinematographer Christopher Doyle.

Noyce could have pushed the Justice Outraged button; instead he gave both films narrative vigor and quirky humanity. The political messages are noble, but it's the people who will haunt you.