‘The Sympathizer’ Review: HBO’s Experimental Satire Takes Big Swings

The new satire is chock-full of distinctive artistic choices, and though not all work as intended, they come together to make a memorable and impactful series.

Hoa Xuande and Robert Downey Jr. in The Sympathizer. Courtesy of HBO

If there’s one thing you can say about The Sympathizer, it’s that this show can hardly be described as just one thing. It’s a miniseries overflowing with ideas, ambition, and intelligence, and while it can range from disorienting to delightful, it’s worth watching for how intensely it commits to its individual approach.

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The Sympathizer comes to HBO as an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name by Viet Thanh Nguyen. Brought to the screen by Park Chan-wook and Don McKellar, the show revolves around a man known only as the Captain (Hoa Xuande), a North Vietnamese spy implanted in the secret police of South Vietnam. He’s tasked with being the right-hand-man of the South’s most petulant General (Toan Le), who gladly works with—and often for—the CIA. As the tides begin to turn against the American-backed South and Saigon falls in 1975, the General is forced to flee, and the Captain is forced to join him. Along with other members of the secret police, family, and friends, they go to America as refugees, where the Captain is instructed to keep tabs on any counter-revolutionary activities.

The Captain has a complicated personal life to contend with too, what with being a double agent and lying to those closest to him. While he reports back to childhood friend Man (Duy Nguyen) in Vietnam, he tries to be there for the other member of their longstanding trio, Bon (Fred Nguyen Khan), who lost it all when fleeing. There’s also a situationship that the Captain engrosses himself in with Ms. Sofia Mori (Sandra Oh, who steals every scene), who works at the college he attended years ago. The Captain is unique as a spy, because he’s seen the other side; he lived and learned in America, and, significantly, he’s biracial. Half Vietnamese, half French, that perceived racial bridging is seen by characters throughout the series as both a mark against him and a major strategy to infiltrate the opposition.

Robert Downey Jr. plays several roles in The Sympathizer. Beth Dubber/HBO

And then, of course, there’s the Robert Downey Jr. of it all. The newly minted Oscar winner plays four characters throughout the series: Claude, the CIA operative who coaches the Captain; Professor Hammer, who runs the “Oriental Studies Department” and considers the Captain his star pupil and protege; an explosive film director who recruits the Captain as a cultural consultant for his upcoming movie The Hamlet; and a pugilistic Congressman who sees the Vietnamese refugees as an important constituency and an even more important source of good publicity. Like just about everything else in the series, this quadruple performance is a lot, but at the same time it’s a creative swing that builds upon the many, many underlying themes at play.

That everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach makes it hard to form a truly comprehensive opinion about The Sympathizer, because there’s so much going on at all times. The series is full of savvy observations about American attitudes towards the Vietnam War (the show even starts by noting that it’s called the American War in Vietnam), distilled perhaps most excellently on the set of The Hamlet. RDJ’s egoistic auteur has his entire film take place in a small Vietnamese village, but not a single Vietnamese character gets a line until the Captain argues for authenticity. In a perfectly cringeworthy scene, the auteur demands to know why a Chinese-American extra can’t speak Vietnamese. Elsewhere, novel author Nguyen has noted how much Hollywood films “shaped the global understanding of this war and its aftermath,” so perhaps it’s no surprise that the television adaptation of his book makes its strongest satirical stand against Hollywood. Other, darker points about the near-pornographic sensationalism of Vietnamese suffering also resonate powerfully and painfully.

Not all of the show’s plot points and artistic choices work quite as well, though. The entire series functions as a story within a story, as the Captain recounts his experiences in America to a suspicious Viet Cong commander, so Xuande’s narration runs through every episode. It’s done with a mildly grating “Yeah that’s me, I bet you’re wondering how I ended up here?” kind of tone that doesn’t really mesh with his less confident performance on screen. The narration is a bit much, but it’s not as overbearing as some of Downey Jr.’s characters. His work as Claude feels off, though perhaps that’s just the wig and creepy blue color contacts talking; Professor Hammer makes a worse impression, thanks to an unexamined lisp and limp-wristedness that go along with his very examined orientalism. The decision to have Downey Jr., the only white actor cast in a main role, play all of these facets of American society is an interesting one with intelligent implications, but that doesn’t stop it from being distracting. Sometimes, the show is too clever for its own good.

Ultimately, though, The Sympathizer works on the whole because it manages to stick the very difficult landing it creates for itself. The show makes plenty of bold, odd choices, but they coalesce as the series draws to a close in a surprisingly sentimental way. The journey that The Sympathizer takes the viewer on is unlike any other, and while the twists and turns it takes might be a bit strange or confusing at times, the destination is worth arriving at.

The first episode of ‘The Sympathizer’ premieres on HBO on April 14th. 

‘The Sympathizer’ Review: HBO’s Experimental Satire Takes Big Swings