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The Sympathizer Review: HBO Limited Series Is a Darkly Comedic Tale of Conflicting Loyalties

Hoa Xuande and Robert Downey Jr. lead a daring, insightful adaptation of the Pulitzer-winning novel

Keith Phipps
Hoa Xuande, The Sympathizer

Hoa Xuande, The Sympathizer

Hopper Stone/HBO

Referred to only as The Captain (Hoa Xuande), the protagonist of The Sympathizer spends all seven episodes of this new HBO miniseries analyzing his past, his allegiances, and his own character. Presented as The Captain's extensive confession to an interrogator at a Vietnamese reeducation camp where he's being held prisoner, each episode relies heavily on his (mostly reliable) recounting of the strange events that brought him there, a circular journey from Vietnam to the United States and back again as the war in Vietnam ended and the process of sorting it out and figuring out what came next began. But The Captain never finds a phrase to describe himself more apt than one he offers early in the first episode: "a synthesis of incompatibilities." That may sound like an oxymoron, but The Captain's story suggests it's not at every twist and turn.

Adapted from Viet Thanh Nguyen's Pulitzer-winning 2015 novel of the same name, The Sympathizer uses The Captain's story to explore the geopolitical forces at work in the conflict from the perspective of a character pulled in many directions at once. The son of a Vietnamese mother and a white father he's never met, The Captain grew up mocked as a "half-breed," finding shelter in a close friendship with two boys his age: Man (played as an adult by Duy Nguyễn), who will grow up to be a soldier in South Vietnam's army; and Bon (played as an adult by Fred Nguyen Khan), who will become a dentist and spy for the forces of North Vietnam.

Man doesn't know of Bon's covert activities, but The Captain does. A devoted communist educated in the United States, he's become a double agent. He works for a general in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (called only The General and played by Toan Le) and reports to Claude (Robert Downey Jr.), a CIA agent whose tropical shirts and casual attitude never quite mask his pragmatic viciousness. But The Captain's true loyalties belong to the forces of Ho Chi Minh, which, as the series opens, are rapidly approaching Saigon. And though he expects to join them when they arrive, The Captain is instead ordered to accompany The General to his exile in the United States and continue his espionage work.


The Sympathizer


  • The insightful storytelling and daring mix of comedy and drama


  • The episodic nature leaves some supporting characters behind

Co-created by Park Chan-Wook (who also directs the first three episodes) and the prolific Canadian actor/writer/director Don McKellar (a Tony winner for The Drowsy Chaperone whose work also includes the terrific apocalyptic 1998 indie drama Last Night), The Sympathizer stays true to the episodic nature and tone of Nguyen's novel. It's blackly comic in a way that never loses sight of the gravity of its subject. The General, for instance, is a clown with delusions of grandeur — when he's jeered at a refugee camp after donning his uniform and expecting to be greeted as a hero, he knows he's being undermined by a subversive — but he's a clown whose actions have consequences (and grow more consequential as the story goes along).

Park proves to be a good match for the material. His dynamic direction establishes a pattern for subsequent directors Fernando Meirelles and Marc Munden to follow, and the series allows him to add another work about conflicting loyalties and blurred identities to his filmography. Though his previous miniseries, an adaptation of John le Carré's The Little Drummer Girl, would appear to be the closest match, it's a theme that can be traced through movies like Decision to Leave, The Handmaiden, and other Park films. The Captain sees the world through a lens of absurdity, recognizing that nothing is necessarily as it first appears and the foolishness of those who believe it to be.

Downey's contributions heighten the absurdity. He's introduced as Claude but also plays three other roles throughout the series (and sometimes within the same scene): a professor of "Oriental Studies," a right-wing politician, and the egotistical, Oscar-winning director whom The Captain comes to advise on a Hollywood epic with echoes of Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, and Casualties of War. (The episode focusing on its production features some fun supporting turns from well-known actors that might be best left unspoiled.) This is Downey's Dr. Strangelove turn, and he throws himself into it. Though the comic performances sometimes feel out of sync with the reality of the rest of the series, this makes a certain amount of dramatic sense. He plays the warping effect of Western colonialism as the same force wearing different faces.

He's also part of an impressive cast that includes Sandra Oh, Alan Trong, and Vy Le, but the series wouldn't work without Xuande serving as anchor. The Captain might come from a novel, but he's in the tradition of HBO antiheroes whose awful actions don't obscure their humanity. Navigating a world that, in both Vietnam and the United States, seems to offer no home, he makes The Captain a character tortured by loyalties so twisted even he can't untangle them. Maybe some incompatibilities can't be synthesized after all.

Premieres: Sunday, April 14 at 9/8c on HBO, with subsequent episodes airing weekly
Who's in it: Hoa Xuande, Robert Downey Jr.
Who's behind it: Park Chan-wook and Don McKellar
For fans of: Complex historical stories, dark comedy
How many episodes we watched: 7 of 7