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The Sympathizer Series Review: Stylish & Potent  

Hoa Xuande and Robert Downey Jr. discreetely talk to each other while sitting at a table and looking at someone in Max Series The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer, Robert Downey Jr.’s first post-Oscar win project, is a stylish, grandiose thriller series set in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. 

The Vietnam War is a section of history that is still, to this day, ferociously discussed. The United States of America entered the war to stop the spread of communism that was being threatened if North Vietnam had been able to take over South Vietnam. The brutality of the guerilla warfare used by the Viet Cong (the name of the North Vietnamese soldiers) and the intensive fighting conditions caused by the landscape of Vietnam’s jungle has made for the backdrop of some of the most potent war films ever made. Park Chan-wook’s newest project The Sympathizer, the television series adaptation of the 2015 Viet Thanh Nguyen novel by the same name, takes a completely different approach and perspective, rendering a new type of compelling war story

The Sympathizer follows the story of a half-Vietnamese half-French communist spy, known as The Captain (Hoa Xuande), who has infiltrated the special police force in South Vietnam during the final years of the Vietnam War. The day before the fall of Saigon, he is forced to flee his home country with the rest of the South Vietnamese special police force and continue his espionage mission in the States. After his refugee camp is moved to Los Angeles, The Captain’s struggle with his sense of identity heightens as he is forced to reflect on the spilt ideologies his mission forces him to inhabit and the cultural pulls he feels from his new home and his old one. 

With no family in the picture, The Captain is guided by his friendship with his “blood brothers” Man (Duy Nguyen) and Bon (Fred Nguyen Khan), his complicated mentorship with the South Vietnamese special forces police chief called The General (Toan Lee) and four different patriarchal figures played by Robert Downey Jr. (Oppenheimer). While a story about the lasting effects and aftermath of the Vietnam War and its impact on Vietnamese culture in the United States, the series also stands as a visceral search for identity in a world that is unable to look beyond binaries

The Sympathizer shines its brightest when it heavily lays into its satiric and realist viewpoints on the ways in which Vietnamese people and stories were treated following the Vietnam War. Park Chan-wook’s (director of Oldboy and Decision to Leave) new series makes a point to note that during the time of the Vietnam War and the years to follow, the stories being told about the war were American stories being told by American filmmakers. These types of stories oftentimes would relegate Vietnamese people to voiceless villains, devoid of any context, dialogue, or background. With The Sympathizer, there are various perspectives from Vietnamese survivors of the Vwar who have all had different relationships and experiences with the toll the war has taken on their lives. The series does a brilliant job at ensuring these stories get heard and get the time needed to be spun into deeply nuanced and sophisticated characters. 

Robert Downey Jr. plays shifty politician Godwin in the Max Series The Sympathizer
Robert Downey Jr. in Max Series The Sympathizer (Hopper Stone/HBO)

The series has a very interesting and incredibly specific way of dealing with the American perspective on the Vietnam War as seen through Robert Downey Jr’s characters. Downey Jr’s four-man act he oscillates through during the series run is meant to symbolize the many faces of the white patriarchy that was controlling the narrative in America regarding the Vietnam War. 

Downey Jr plays a CIA agent called The Colonel, who is assisting in the dealings of the South Vietnamese special police forces. Another hat he dawns is an old professor of The Captain’s who has an unsettling obsession with appropriating various Asian cultures. He also plays an American film director creating a film on the Vietnam War who hires The Captain to serve as his “cultural consoler” for the film. And finally, a shifty politician who is trying to win over the refugee community in the hopes it will establish a generation-long devotion to his political aspirations.

Downey Jr. expertly plays all these white men in positions of power trying their hardest to extract their various needs from The Captain and his community. The power of him playing all four of these parts is that it adds to the concept that while all these white men might have differing needs from the Vietnamese refugee community, they will do whatever is necessary to take what they need from the community to benefit their cause. While all his characters vary in appearance, The Captain sees the connection between all of these men and approaches each one with the distance needed in order to be cautious of their motives. 

The series, however, is unable to sustain momentum in the long run and tries to cram too many plotlines and lessons into its finale. In terms of narrative, while playful, the series has a hard time establishing a rhythm, especially towards the end of the season. The show has a classic case of too much plot left to wrap up in not enough time. This issue is foreshadowed early on in the season, however, as the series begins to lose its focus, much like its main character’s, on the mission at hand. While the series is a great satire and study of how the Vietnamese people were underestimated and were not allowed voices during this period, the show has no problem straying as far off course as possible to prove this point regardless of how much it interferes with the rhythm of the show. This affliction goes beyond the plot and spreads to uneven distributions of importance to certain character’s plotlines, rendering them highly pivotal in one episode and completely unimportant the next.  

Even when trying to appease all parties by the end of the season’s run, there are still lingering questions left about what is to come of some of the show’s biggest players. Additionally, the twists and turns of the show do not have a particularly high shock value and at times the logic of The Captain’s ideologies seems highly improbable and difficult to keep track of. 

The Sympathizer achieves what seems to be its main mission of creating a thrilling and interesting story about the Vietnam War from the perspective of nuanced and complex Vietnamese characters. As a thriller, it does not go above and beyond in any aspect, it’ll keep you interested in the story enough but won’t necessarily have you on the edge of your seat.  

New HBO limited series The Sympathizer will be released on Max on April 14, 2024. Stream The Sympathizer on Max!

The Sympathizer: Trailer (Max)

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