Park Chan-wook, Several Robert Downey Jrs, Vietnam War-Set Spy Thrills: 'The Sympathizer' Has Them All

This seven-part HBO adaptation of Viet Thanh Nguyen's Pulitzer Prize-winning book is one of 2024's must-sees.
Sarah Ward
Published on May 09, 2024

Fresh from winning an Oscar for getting antagonistic in times gone by as United States Atomic Energy Commission chair Lewis Strauss in Oppenheimer, Robert Downey Jr gets antagonistic in times gone by again in The Sympathizer — as a CIA handler, a university professor, a politician and a Francis Ford Coppola-esque filmmaker on an Apocalypse Now-style movie, for starters. In another addition to his post-Marvel resume that emphasises how great it is to see him stepping into the shoes of someone other than Tony Stark again, he swaps a franchise with a multiverse for multiple roles in an espionage-meets-war drama (the Vietnam War for Americans, and the American War for the Vietnamese), with the great Park Chan-wook (Decision to Leave) co-calling the shots. And, in this adaption of Viet Thanh Nguyen's 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, Downey Jr is excellent. He also executive produces. He likely has more awards in his future, starting with a Best Supporting Actor Emmy. Note the category: he could never be mistaken for The Sympathizer's lead or point of focus.

Instead, that honour goes to Australian Hoa Xuande, who has fellow series Top Knot Detective, Top of the Lake, Cleverman, Hungry Ghosts, Cowboy Bebop and Last King of the Cross, plus Aussie films OtherLife and A Stitch in Time, on his resume before now. Against a co-star whose hops between characters bring his single 80s season on Saturday Night Live to mind, and also Tropic Thunder when that fake Vietnam War flick pops up, Xuande makes the leap to a high-profile HBO miniseries. As seen via Binge in Australia and Neon in New Zealand, he plays The Captain, who works for South Vietnamese secret police in Saigon before the city's fall, and is also a spy for the North Vietnamese communist forces. It's his memories, as typed out at a reeducation camp, that guide the seven-part show's narrative — jumping back and forth in time, as recollections do, including to his escape to America.

As The Captain unveils the details of his mission and double-agent efforts, The Sympathizer isn't flitting between flashbacks as a mere structural tactic. The act of remembering is as much at the centre of the series as the varied contents of The Captain's memories — to the extent that rewinding to add more context to something that's just been shown, as accompanied by the sound of a VHS tape doing just that, is also a feature. So is The Captain noting that he didn't specifically witness everything that he's relaying, but feels as if he can fill in the gaps, talking through such choices to viewers like they're his editor. The Sympathizer interrogates the act and function of storytelling, too, underscoring those musings with the flickering light of a movie being projected as a recurrent symbol, nods to filmmaking everywhere — one episode solely spins around The Hamlet, the picture within the series — and even the grim repurposing of a cinema.

Spy thrills, several Downey Jrs, one of the greatest Korean filmmakers there is, a standout protagonist, unpacking how fast and loose recollections can be with the facts, laying bare the motivations behind and complexities of telling tales: The Sympathizer has them all. Perspective and influence are also high among its concerns, alongside duality, deception and assimilation. The Captain's task is to play his part for The People's Army by supporting and also sabotaging the South Vietnamese General (Toan Le, Bigfoot) that he's embedded with — and to stick with the gig both in Vietnam and in the US. His path is also to navigate the sway of many colonial faces, making Downey Jr's array of characters a powerful and revealing touch (that everyone he brings to the series, and therefore every white man with an imprint on The Captain's life, resembles each other makes a potent statement).

What toll does an existence divided take, personally, for a community forced to immigrate and start anew abroad, and for the nation they left behind? The Sympathizer explores this query as well. The son of a Vietnamese mother and French father who was teased mercilessly for his heritage as a boy, The Captain has lived in this chasm between two words for as long as he can remember — and now, as an adult who studied in America, embraces its popular culture, and has childhood best friends split between a secret fellow North Vietnamese agent (Ghosts' Duy Nguyen as Man) and a committed South Vietnamese fighter (Tales of Melee Island's Fred Nguyen Khan as Bon), clashing sides has long been his baseline.

Fragmentation surrounds The Captain everywhere, including in his romantic life. He's torn between Sofia Mori (Sandra Oh, Quiz Lady), a Californian of Japanese ancestry born in America, and Lana (first-timer Vy Le), The General's daughter. Also omnipresent: the pressure to fit in, especially with the capitalists and colonialists that he's pretending to be in league with. Downey Jr's countenance adorns Caucasian men endeavouring to keep him under the thumb — and when the CIA's Claude, Orientalist academic Hammer, Congressman "napalm" Ned and auteur Nikos all share a scene (in "the natural habitat of the most dangerous creature on earth, the white man in a suit and tie: the steakhouse"), it's in an attempt to ensure that The Captain is using his identity for their aims first and foremost.

Thanks to Park, behind The Sympathizer off-screen is a filmmaker with a history of probing the stories that we tell ourselves and get others believing. See: stone-cold revenge-thriller classic Oldboy and the Vengeance Trilogy that it falls into; 2022's best film, the aforementioned Decision to Leave; and, the last time that he made a TV spy thriller, 2018 miniseries The Little Drummer Girl. He co-created this ambitious adaptation for television with Don McKellar (Blindness) and it always bears his touch, whether or not he's directing episodes — he helms three — with his piercing style, or he's getting assistance from Fernando Meirelles (who has been busy with this and Sugar) and Marc Munden (The Third Day).

Park and his collaborators have made a tension-dripping psychological thriller, a weighty and moving drama, and a cutting political satire. They've applied a New Hollywood look — and undeniably American motifs aplenty — to a narrative where cultural imperialism is inescapable. They've cast meticulously and, through exceptional performances by Xuande and Downey Jr, stress how the chameleonic demands of a spy are easier to maintain if you're also playing both sides within yourself, and how there's only one face to dominance. Giving 2024's small-screen slate one of its must-sees, they've also scorched a work of page-to-screen brilliance into every viewer's own memory.

Check out the trailer for The Sympathizer below:

The Sympathizer streams via Binge in Australia and Neon in New Zealand.

Published on May 09, 2024 by Sarah Ward
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