The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer
The Sympathizer
Home » Blogs » The Sympathizer

There is a recurring question, which the protagonist of the new HBO series The Sympathizer is haunted by: “Is this necessary?” Every new task he undertakes in his role as a North Vietnamese communist plant within the South Vietnamese secret police: Is this necessary? The atrocities he witnesses while straddling the line of the conflict known alternately as The Vietnam War and The American War: Is this necessary? The ordeal of re-education, casual racism from his U.S. contacts, tests of his loyalty: Is this necessary? However, creators Park Chan-wook and Don McKellar seem not to have asked themselves that same question. And so, viewers contemplating on its jarring tonal shifts with its source material’s damaging departures and Robert Downey Jr.’s multi-part performance miscalculations would potentially ask themselves: Is this necessary?

“The Captain” (Hoa Xuande) also runs the novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen ̶which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize– for winning and unnamed double agent working with United States Central Intelligence Agency who has been employed at Saigon since childhood up to his days as refugee in Los Angeles when Vietnam fell. A lack of coherence and odd pacing undermine what could otherwise be an espionage thriller cum culture-clash satire as told through flashbacks. Playing Xuaude brings out all the charm and humor that one expects from a spy – or ‘man of two faces’ in other words – such as; He is biracial, being born to a Vietnamese mother and French father; He has fidelity towards his “blood brothers,” one who belonged to South Vietnam’s Army while another served as member communist party; Also, he has been searching for home post-Vietnam War both in America and within homeland.

The Sympathizer identity crisis is partly due to its rotating cast of directors. For instance, there was no consistency between Park’s first three episodes, and the rest of the series, which showed a different side of them as compared to the novels; in fact, this was what made them like a different show all together. The fourth episode, directed by Fernando Meirelles, is the first one that really takes off with The Captain working as a Hollywood consultant during the Vietnam War movie “The Hamlet”. However, it is not until Marc Munden comes on board for Episodes 5-7 that a balance is struck between dark comedy and the immigrant experience among Vietnamese.

Although Park’s keen eye for detail is excellent, his sarcastic direction does not capture deeply rooted pain and emotional loss of the characters. In a scene where Vietnamese soldiers flee from Viet Cong attack, there is a colorful background that indirectly exposes romanticized visions of war by Hollywood. This is an interesting idea (and one that hearkens back to Nguyen’s initial inspiration for The Sympathizer as well as Meirelles’ exceptional Episode 4), but it detracts from the humanity present in the scene. Though Bon (performed gracefully by Fred Nguyen Khan, also known as Ngoc Tinh) – the captain’s best friend since childhood – lost a lot during his escape out of the country, this melancholic moment gets easily overshadowed by other cinematic events. Munden on the other hand gives voice to the remaining pain of war.

As Captain starts to be more assimilated into American society through relationships with his Japanese American boss Miss Mori (played brilliantly by Sandra Oh), and longing for Vietnamese representation in US media, he becomes estranged from his communist beliefs. As far as adapting such heavy themes within seven episodes are concerned, it sticks quite closely to the novel. Thus asking Robert Downey Jr. to play amalgamations of minor white characters in book is thematic soundness whereas those having Asians looks like wrongly placed ones. Whatever Nguyen wrote for Bon has been given instead to Kim-Van; it actually serves to deepen Khoi’s character while making him less emblematic of history’s wounds on Vietnam than ever before in this part of Da Nang. However, changing one actor cast for The Hamlet undermines The Sympathizer’s mocking digs at studio heads who believe all Asian actors are interchangeable.

Unfortunately, Downey’s role(s) comes across as most unfulfilling part of this series. Downey was rumored to have been cast playing different white people in The Sympathizer according to Park. These white characters are meant to represent the challenges and struggles faced by the Vietnamese people; so why wouldn’t they all be played by one actor? But this guy decided to go full Tropic Thunder, cranking up the ridiculousness in his performance of nonsensical racist beliefs. By contrast, Xuande and Khan offer much more grounded performances – particularly in a laborious Nutty Professor-esque dinner scene where four Downeys square off against Xuande.

These figures were intended as satiric caricatures but they did not have to become ugly stereotypes like The Captain’s old professor, Avery Wright Hammer. While Downey has respectfully portrayed gay men before, his depiction of Hammer is done with exaggerated effeminate mannerisms that become uncomfortable after a while as this intrudes upon the acting process itself. On contrary, Mori is engaged in racist dialogues and fetishizes Asian culture, but he pales in comparison to how Downey portrays him.

This is a tough story to tell so quickly. The main cast performs well and the dual identity theme runs through the novel as it should, although there appears something not quite right with the series. Many Vietnamese people who got displaced and were forgotten in most cases in the West were stripped of their lives by tragic events which followed after the Fall of Saigon; however, they are given a voice over their ordeal by Nguyen. The TV adaptation only scratches the surface focusing mainly on aesthetics and dark comedy.


There are all indications that The Sympathizer could have been a successful miniseries: an Asian co-showrunner who is one of our foremost film directors, an Academy Award-winning actor essaying multiple parts, and a tale led by Vietnamese-American actors about Vietnam War infested age. However, it does not give us a cohesive and thoughtful narrative. While Hoa Xuande or Fred Nguyen Khan epitomize what acting can be like this movie negates its very essence once materiality has been excluded from specific themes or major plots hence leaving characters devoid of life.

Also, Read On Fmovies

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *