‘The Sympathizer’: Robert Downey Jr.’s First Post-Oscars Project Is a Mindf*ck

HBO’s head-spinning Vietnam War-era drama, based on the Pulitzer-winning novel, chokes on its many ambitions.Updated Apr. 10, 2024 10:01AM EDT / Published Apr. 10, 2024 10:00AM EDT Beth Dubber / HBO From split allegiances and fractured lineages to tensions between truths and lies, reality and fantasy, capitalism and communism, and war and peace, dualities run rampant in The Sympathizer, Park Chan-wook and

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HBO’s head-spinning Vietnam War-era drama, based on the Pulitzer-winning novel, chokes on its many ambitions.

Nick Schager

A photo including Robert Downey Jr. in the series The Sympathizer on HBO

Beth Dubber / HBO

From split allegiances and fractured lineages to tensions between truths and lies, reality and fantasy, capitalism and communism, and war and peace, dualities run rampant in The Sympathizer, Park Chan-wook and Don McKellar’s seven-part HBO adaptation of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2015 novel. Internal and external tug-of-wars are the order of the day, as are people who’re multiple things at once, and that’s not even referring to the fact that the series co-stars recent Oscar winner Robert Downey Jr. in four separate roles. A head-spinning look at the fallout from the Vietnam War from a decidedly non-American perspective, it’s a deliberately dizzying tale of loyalty, treachery, and deception. No matter an invigorated early going, however, it’s a venture that ultimately falls victim to its own bifurcations, torn apart by its desire to serve myriad masters at the same time.

Written by McKellar and Park (Decision to Leave, The Handmaiden), the latter of whom directs its first three episodes, The Sympathizer (April 14) is most notable for the participation of Downey Jr. Unfortunately, following his superbly modulated turn in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, the actor embodies his quartet of supporting characters as various caricatures of American villainy, each one as superficial and show-off-y as the last. Chief among them is Claude, a CIA officer in big-collared shirts and leisure suits who’s introduced working in Vietnam on behalf of the American-allied North against the communist South. Later, he’s additionally a militaristic congressman, a pretentious and exploitative Oriental Studies professor, and a narcissistic big-budget film director who takes center stage in a fourth episode that satirizes Hollywood’s Vietnam epics and their slanted pro-USA perspectives with a cartoonishness that more than faintly recalls Tropic Thunder.

The Sympathizer occasionally tries to be funny, but it’s far from a comedy; instead, it seeks to straddle as many lines as its protagonist, the unnamed and rather bland Captain (Hoa Xuande), who narrates his story in hindsight from a communist reeducation camp in his native Vietnam. Park and McKellar’s show blends styles with wild abandon, such that trace elements of Catch-22, The Manchurian Candidate, and the works of Kurt Vonnegut, John Le Carré, and Phillip Roth can all be detected throughout its seven-hour runtime. Part-spy thriller, post-colonialist character study, and media critique, and full of torture, disguises, scams, double crosses, tragedies, shootouts, and explosions, it smushes together everything and anything it can think of. It thereby echoes not only the countless confusions of its main character, but also the ironic contradictions and hypocrisies of Vietnam and America’s tangled and combative relationship.

“All wars are fought twice. The first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory,” states the opening of The Sympathizer, and it’s not the final time that the series partakes in heavy-handed statements of theme. In winter 1975, four months before the fall of Saigon, Captain and Claude meet in front of a Charles Bronson marquee painting. While he doesn’t admit as much to his CIA handler, who trained him in the United States from childhood to be a secret police agent, Captain knows about death wishes, since he’s covertly working for the Viet Cong. Playing both sides is a tricky undertaking, and it turns downright dangerous when he’s brought inside the theater to watch a young communist agent be violently questioned (in a movie projector’s white light) about the person who gave her intercepted photos of Northern intel.

A photo including Robert Downey Jr. in the series The Sympathizer on HBO

Robert Downey Jr.

Hopper Stone / HBO

As it turns out, Captain is this woman’s contact. Yet The Sympathizer unspools its mysteries gradually, and often with flair. Park’s direction is typically serpentine and seductive, full of rotating and handheld camerawork that echoes his subjects’ states of mind, and match cuts (e.g., a rotary phone giving way to a taxicab’s tire) that create harmony amidst the material’s endless partitions. Born to a French father and a Vietnamese mother, Captain is a “half-breed” who’s now torn between his allegiances to America and Vietnam, the North and the South. He’s further ripped apart by a host of ensuing complications, be they regarding his lifelong friendship between his blood-brothers Bon (Fred Nguyen Khan), an anti-communist, and Man (Duy Nguyễn), a fervent communist; his romance with the professor’s Japanese-American colleague Sofia (Sandra Oh), who eventually finds herself drawn to socialist reporter Sonny (Alan Trong); or his devotion to the General (Toan Le), for whom he works as a right-hand man and whom he’s spying on for the Viet Cong.

A photo including Robert Downey Jr., Hoa Xuande in the series The Sympathizer in HBO

Robert Downey Jr.

Hopper Stone / HBO

There’s an overwhelming amount of plot jammed into The Sympathizer, and much of it operates in different tonal registers, lending the action a bumpiness that, however thematically apt, proves more wearisome than gripping. The show’s helter-skelter form quickly undercuts its suspense, humor and horror; for all its madcap energy, it largely spins in circles, returning to familiar places and scenarios again and again, often literally via Captain “rewinding” his yarn to revisit and revise key contextual moments. More frustrating still is the fact that, despite assuming a novel point of view on the Vietnam War, it imparts nothing particularly surprising about the conflict. Tracing the dizzying disjointedness of Vietnamese men and women (whether they stayed to rebuild or left for America) is accomplished at outset and then re-enforced ad nauseam through espionage convolutions. When it comes to Americans, it says what one might expect an endeavor such as this to: namely, that they were dastardly and self-interested agents of destruction.

A photo including Hoa Xuande, Toan Le in the series The Sympathizer on HBO

Hoa Xuande, Toan Le

Hopper Stone / HBO

Cinematic undercurrents course throughout The Sympathizer, not least of which because Captain is engaged in several role-playing performances, but the series is so all over the place that nothing gels. It’s not that Park and McKellar’s endeavor isn’t easy to follow so much as that it increasingly becomes a chore to keep straight. Between its diversions, flashbacks and mix-and-match genre elements—a couple of assassination schemes here, a jokey riff on Hamlet there—it feels like too much and not enough. That goes for Downey Jr. as well, who relishes the opportunity to play numerous faces of evil, and yet renders them as just colorful two-dimensional clichés. It’s easy to have sympathy for an elaborate drama that eagerly bites off more than it can chew. What’s tougher is forgiving it for choking on its own ambition.

Nick Schager

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