review

The Sympathizer: A heady spy thriller in post-Vietnam War America

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
3 Min Read
The Sympathizer premieres on April 15.
The Sympathizer premieres on April 15. Credit: HBO/A24/Binge

Dualities and multiplicities are threaded all through The Sympathizer, a story about a North Vietnamese agent as he lives undercover in a South Vietnamese refugee community in the US.

The ambitious miniseries comes from two great arbiters of taste, HBO and A24, the latter being the studio behind some of the industry’s most acclaimed work including Oscar winners Moonlight and Everything Everywhere All At Once and Emmy victors Beef and Euphoria. Everyone wants to be in the A24 business right now.

Adapted from a Pulitzer-winning novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen, the 1970s-set The Sympathizer is a heady, at times discombobulating but almost always compulsive series about the complexity of loyalty, belonging and betrayal.

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The title character is not named and only referred to as the Captain (Australian actor Hoa Xuande), a young man of mixed-race heritage, born to a North Vietnamese mother and an unknown French man.

The Sympathizer premieres on April 15.
The Sympathizer premieres on April 15. Credit: HBO/A24/Binge

As an agent for the North during the Vietnam War, he is the aide de camp for the General (Toan Le) but is spying for the communist side. In the moments before Saigon’s fall and the withdrawal of American troops, Captain relocates to the US against his wishes.

He professes to want to stay in Vietnam to help rebuild the country with his comrades but his handler correctly deduces that it’s not so simple, that Captain loves the US, where he studied as a university student.

This is a character who is torn between so many versions of himself – as a spy, as an immigrant with loyalties to a homeland that may not even exist anymore, but also as someone who seeks a sense of belonging where he is. He is also a genuine friend to childhood buddy Bon (Fred Nguyen) and a lover to Ms Mori (Sandra Oh).

He can’t even be honest with himself about himself. That makes for a fascinating watch as Captain contorts, rationalising his sometimes violent decisions, and aspiring to be better.

Those multiplicities are also present in the choice for Robert Downey Jr. to play all the significant white characters, a CIA agent, an Oriental-fetishist professor, a local politician and a film director. It’s a lot and not all of them work. The bombastic director, based on Francis Ford Coppola and his experiences making Apocalypse Now, is the most effective. The others border on caricature.

The Sympathizer premieres on April 15.
The Sympathizer premieres on April 15. Credit: HBO/A24/Binge

The first three episodes are directed by Park Chan-wook, who co-created the series with Don McKellar. The Korean filmmaker has a history with stories exploring the darkness in men’s hearts including The Handmaiden, Stoker and Oldboy. Park has even dipped his toe in the espionage game before, with the John Le Carre adaptation The Little Drummer Girl.

Park’s experience with complicated identities and contradictions produced incredible moments in The Sympathizer, including the suspenseful third episode in which Captain has to work his way up to an assassination.

Park’s cinematic prowess is seen in the ending of the first episode, a chaotic scene of bombs raining down on fleeing refugees as they run for an American evacuation plane. The fifth episode, directed by Marc Munden, is a wild diversion in the world of filmmaking, and guest stars David Duchovny as a Marlon Brando stand-in, and John Cho.

The Sympathizer can be a little patchwork-y but you suspect it’s intentional. If Captain can’t make sense of things, how are we to? It captures that medley of a man always in flux, forever paddling towards the shore only to be dunked by another wave.

The Sympathizer is on Binge from April 15 with new episodes available weekly

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