Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

The Guardian | The Sympathizer: Robert Downey Jr totally steals the show in electric spy thriller 

Downey Jr dons bald caps and gnaws cigars to have the most fun imaginable in Park Chan-wook’s inspired espionage show. Believe the hype! Joel Golby writes for The Guardian

The problem with a hype show, of course, is the “getting excited about it” part. Oh, a big-budget HBO series based on the Pulitzer prize-winning novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen? A cleverly blank spy-with-a-brain-not-just-a-small-gun performance from Hoa Xuande and a knowing I’m-the-cheekiest-person-at-this-party turn from Sandra Oh? Robert Downey Jr, fresh from that impeccable Oscar acceptance speech, having the most fun possible with a host of increasingly extravagant characters? Directed with glee and style by Park Chan-wook? If life has taught me anything it is this: when something sounds too good to be true, it normally is. There is no way The Sympathizer can live up to that.

Except, well, hmm. I’m starting to suspect this might be one of those cosmic occurrences where TV just gets everything right. The Sympathizer (Monday, 9pm, Sky Atlantic) starts in Vietnam, and dips back there regularly – we follow Xuande’s anonymous Captain, both as he attempts to flee a collapsing Saigon and as he settles into a refugee community in Los Angeles (and as he tries to tell the story of what happened by scrawling it down in a prison cell), and the timeline jumps around a lot, and satisfyingly. There are a lot of little fold-out cameras in interior pockets, a lot of people on quiet car journeys revealing a dark long-held secret and looking into eyes for clues of disloyalty, a lot of coded messages daubed in invisible ink.

The Sympathizer leans easily and heavily on many genre tropes – there’s spy stuff, but not too much: you’re very rarely watching a man try to open a secret drawer while dramatic music tells you what to feel about it – but remembers to have human characters in place to pull the Captain’s loyalties this way and that, so you actually care whether he gets caught being in a corridor he shouldn’t be in or sweating while telling a lie. What TV has always struggled with is how to show someone having a crisis over which side they are truly on – that’s why we get so many corny scenes where characters talk to themselves in a mirror (“No, I shouldn’t defect to America. But: ah, I just love those McDonald’s cheeseburgers!”) – but The Sympathizer manages to show the Captain’s profound internal struggle without being, well, crap.

It’s Downey Jr who’s trying hard to steal the show, though. His role is to play as many roles as possible – each episode he plays a different antagonist to the Captain, sometimes a former professor and sometimes a CIA mentor and sometimes a congressman and sometimes a caricature of Francis Ford Coppola – and he gnaws through cigars and bald caps and bonkers voices as he does so (the first is essentially Larry David’s George Steinbrenner impression, if you even care). The decision to have one actor play so many roles is a smart one in a spy thriller that’s having fun with style – it keeps you unbalanced, never quite knowing who each person is and whether they are just the last person in a new disguise – and having it be Robert Downey Jr is particularly inspired: he just is, completely inescapably, Robert Downey Jr all the time. He is never not being Robert Downey Jr – he is never not doing that Robert Downey Jr thing, where he feigns foolishness then immediately talks really quickly to let you know that he’s actually very smart – and there’s something eccentrically sparky about that. The man winking at you from a series of rubber-paint-on-face disguises is never not Robert Downey Jr! You can’t escape it, and neither can he!

Apple’s Slow Horses has fired electricity into the dead old veins of the spy thriller in the past few years, and it did so in part with a great cast and a pleasingly intricate story, but also by having a big, weird cartoon guy in the middle of it played by an Oscar-winning actor who is just having fun on his own frequency. Here, Downey Jr’s cartoonish turn and Gary Oldman’s Jackson Lamb share a spiritual similarity: they are both there to temper a story that could easily be either too harrowing or too dry or too safecrackery or too “they were the bad guy all along!”, just by being really scene-stealing and strange. So yeah, it turns out getting good directors and good actors to have playtime with a good book can turn into good TV. Who knew?

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