Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

The Nation Podcast | Trump’s Very Bad Week, plus Prestige TV, from The Sympathizer to Shogun | Start Making Sense

On this episode of Start Making Sense, John Nichols comments on the hush money trial, and John Powers reviews historical dramas on “quality” TV for The Nation

On this episode: TV right now is featuring several prestige historical dramas. John Powers compares and contrasts The Sympathizer, centering on a spy for the Communists in Vietnam and then California in the 1970s; Manhunt, following the search for Lincoln’s assassin; A Gentleman in Moscow, portraying a Russian aristocrat after the Bolshevik Revolution, and Shogun, about feuding 17th-century Japanese warlords. John is critic at large for NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

Listen to the podcast here and read below for the transcript.

And now we want to talk about Prestige TV, historical dramas streaming now, The Sympathizer, Man Hunt, A Gentleman in Moscow and Shogun. For that, we turn to John Powers. He’s critic at large on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, where he’s heard by more than eight million listeners on the radio and the podcast.


He’s worked for 25 years as a critic and columnist, first at the LA Weekly, then Vogue. His work has also appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Nation. Last time he was here, we talked about the film American Fiction, based on Percival Everett’s wonderful novel Erasure.
John Powers, welcome back.


Glad to be here.


Well, I want to start with The Sympathizer, seven episodes on HBO. I think it’s the best of what we’re reviewing today. Episode one, at least, I thought was spectacularly good.
That’s the only one that’s available to us civilians right now. You, of course, have seen more. The series is based on a terrific novel by Viet Nguyen that came out in 2015 and won the Pulitzer Prize that year.

The TV series is an espionage thriller that HBO says is a cross-cultural satire about the struggles of a half French, half Vietnamese communist spy during the last days of the Vietnam War. And then his new life as a refugee in LA, where he’s been sent to spy on the anti-communist exile leaders. So it’s a spy series.


It’s very much about the psychology of the spy, but it’s not like a John Le Carre spy series.
No, it’s not. I mean, what it is, is that it’s a portrait, I think, of many different kinds of ambivalence. It is a story about a guy who is, he’s loyal to Vietnam, which is why he’s a North Vietnamese spy.
But he has two great friends. He’s blood brothers with these friends. They call themselves the Three Musketeers.


He is in the center. On one side is one who is a North Vietnamese spy, secretly. On the other side, a gung-ho South Vietnamese soldier who’s exceedingly violent and very loyal.


He’s caught between those two, and his job essentially is, he’s been brought in by the North Vietnamese to spy on a general, a general of the Saigon regime, first in Saigon, and then later as they move to Los Angeles and begin their new lives, the general owns a liquor store, and our hero is more or less trying to keep tabs on them for the North Vietnamese, while feeling more and more isolated the entire time.


The first thing we see at the beginning of episode one is a title card that says, in America, they call it the Vietnam War. In Vietnam, they call it the American War. That tells us a lot about what’s to come.
It does, yes. I mean, because one of the most basic things is that, I mean, I’ve seen lots of Vietnam shows. And I think at the time I first read The Sympathizer, I thought it was probably the best thing I’d read by someone showing me how it would look from the other side of, I guess, of the looking glass.
And this show does that. The first episode is about our protagonist, Confession, which he’s ordered to write in longhand in a communist reeducation camp just after the fall of Saigon. We think he has nothing to confess. He worked as a spy for the Viet Cong inside the Saigon government secret police.
And yet, and yet what?


Well, and yet there’s always something to confess. And among the things about this character, there are things he likes about the United States. You know, he likes the pop songs, even though he’s not quite sure he should.


That’s something you have to confess.


One key scene of episode one really struck me. Our hero has set up one of his fellow North Vietnamese agents in Saigon to be caught with secret Saigon government documents that he has given her. She is very roughly interrogated and the interrogators try to get her to reveal who gave her the documents, who of course was our hero.


Well, the captain he’s called. He’s a captain in the Saigon government. The captain watches her interrogation where they’re forcing her to reveal that she got these documents from him, but she refuses.


She doesn’t name him because she is totally committed to the cause of revolution. And there’s a closeup of his face in tears and he has to be thinking, is his own commitment as total as hers? After all, he did tell us at the very beginning that he’s a man of two faces and also of two minds.


Yes, that is the great drama. The drama of both of his friends are deeply committed.


The one who fights for the South Vietnamese is Gung Ho, he will die for it.


The North Vietnamese guy will die for it.


Whereas he’s in between, he doesn’t know whether he will, but he’s doing the things you do. As it is, he set up this woman who you just described, basically to be tortured, to reveal something, and he knows basically he’s responsible for it.


And yet he’s not sure he’s completely sold on it. You know, which at some level is maybe even more something to confess, which is you get somebody tortured and you’re not really sure you believe in it.
Whereas like a hardened revolutionary, often the thought would be you would just do it because you know it’s the necessary thing.


And on his face, you know he’s not sure it’s necessary.


You mentioned the man who should be his nemesis, the general who he’s been appointed to spy on, who heads the Saigon government secret police. But the general is not just the villain. He’s actually an interesting guy, sort of likable in some ways.


So this is complicated too.


It is complicated, because it’s one of the classic things of spy novels and many of the greatest kind of double agent things is that you become, you actually like and become friends with the people you’re betraying.


And in a way that’s harder than almost anything because you spend so much time with them. And the more time with them, the more you see the things from their point of view and you feel a certain affection, especially because the guy playing the general is he’s childish, he’s paranoic, but he’s kind of charming and likable.


The actor is a wonderful actor. And so even though you know he’s kind of monstrous, you also kind of like him. And that’s exactly what the captain feels.


But he’s having to do things both for him that he thinks are abhorrent and against him that are probably abhorrent, which is a strange place to be working both sides and doing bad things for both sides. Which is the classic thing, I think, of the double agent story, is that you wind up hurting everybody in every direction and feeling terrible about yourself.


One of my favorite things about the first episode is the portrayal of the streets of Saigon in 1975. It just looks spectacular.


Credits say these were shot in Thailand.


The first three episodes are incredibly well directed by the South Korean director Park Chan-wook, who has made lots of great moves. I mean, most famous for Old Boy for Cannes, but he directed The Little Drummer Girl recently on TV. He’s one of the world’s great directors and his way of capturing the way the city looks or the escape from Saigon, his way of capturing the emotion, it is so perfectly done.
I mean, it is a level of directing. You’ve mentioned other shows, just like a huge leap beyond the other three things, which are often like good looking or pretty or skillful.


This is like really great and it’s dealing with such complexity and it is capturing, especially for those of a certain age, the look that you remember seeing in newsreels and stuff when you’re watching it was on TV every night.


They weren’t really newsreels, but it was the newscasts. And when they get to Los Angeles, it’s the same way you think, oh, I recognize the world looking this way in the mid 70s.


Robert Downey plays all four of the white characters. The idea here is to reverse the stereotypical treatment of Asian characters in film and TV. All white men are roughly interchangeable with slight variations.


Do you think that works here with Robert Downey?


I was a little annoyed by it finally because he’s a little broad. The idea is that all of the people he deals with, whether it’s a college professor or a congressman, they’re all the same entitled, blind, slightly cartoonish white guy. And conceptually, that works.


I think that in the actual show, he’s a little big. And he seems even bigger because he’s by far the most famous person in the show.


So your eyes almost are automatically drawn to the movie star always.


And I began thinking, would it be better if you just had four white guys who weren’t played the same character, but all of whom were the same kind of guy?


That’s The Sympathizer, seven episodes on HBO and Max.


And a really good show, a really good show.


Prestige TV at its best. Let’s also talk about Manhunt, seven episodes on Apple TV. This is a sort of a police procedural about capturing the man who assassinated Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth. We know what’s going to happen, but somehow the show is nevertheless pretty intense and scary because we learned right away at the outset that John Wilkes Booth did not act alone. There were simultaneous efforts to assassinate the vice president and the secretary of state, both of which failed. I never learned about this in American history.


I imagine most viewers didn’t. So our hero, the secretary of state, Edward Stanton, played by Tobias Menzies, needs to find out how big was this conspiracy and who was behind it. Was it just Booth and his sidekicks or was it the Confederate government?


Lee had surrendered just five days before.


And if they killed the president, the war will have to be renewed. For me, somehow the echoes to the present were the scary part, even though that couldn’t have been part of the conception of, I mean, this is based on a book written 10 years ago before anyone ever imagined Trump, but what will Trump supporters do if and when he loses in November? Last time it was hang Mike Pants and get Nancy Pelosi. So I found Manhunt to be gripping and kind of scary.


It is, and it is funny. I think it’s a good reminder that American history is much crazier than we have been taught. I mean, I think I probably had vaguely heard at some point there might’ve been a conspiracy with Booth, but it was never in my head.


I certainly, when I was going to school, that wasn’t the way that it was ever taught. The idea that up in Montreal, there’s a Confederacy owned bank that actually has deposited money in John Wilkes Booth’s account. So that in fact, it is part of a big conspiracy.


It is a scary thing about now because you do feel it. Like the lower case version is when Trump was defeated in the last election, 1 think everyone thought, oh, finally it’s over rather than thinking, oh no, it’s going to continue for years with the claim that in fact he actually won the election and was robbed and that now that’s an article of faith for an entire party, an entire huge media networks.
Even though they denied it at the time, they now don’t want to deny it anymore because it cost them their advertising money.


So I do feel this and it is very well done. The director of this is Carl Franklin, who’s an excellent director. The guy who plays John Wilkes Booth is very, very good.
I mean, a Northern Irish guy, it seems like we can’t even, we’re even having to outsource our assassins, John. Can you believe that? We can’t even find an American who can play John Wilkes Booth.
Yet, don’t you feel like somehow out in America, we have another John Wilkes Booth who is being played by an American.


Man Hunt, seven episodes on Ample TV.


And then we want to talk about A Gentleman from Moscow. This provides a critique of the Russian Revolution from the viewpoint of the aristocracy.


The Bolsheviks, we learn, were mean to the nobleman and knew nothing about wine. In this show, our hero, Count Alexander Rostov, played by Ewan McGregor, is sentenced to a kind of house arrest in a grand Moscow hotel where he sleeps in a former maid’s room but otherwise lives a life of five-star luxury for 30 years.


According to the publicity, the theme is that as the Soviet regime descends into tyranny, the Count discovers the value of love, courage and community.


Somehow it never raises the question, could it be that the Count and his family mercilessly exploited the serfs on their estates? That’s not what this is about. The Count is a charming and delightful character, and so is the beautiful movie star he sleeps with, so is the little girl he befriends, so is the warm-hearted hotel worker who cares for bees up on the roof.


It’s a simple idea. Stalinism was bad. The Russian aristocracy was charming and delightful.
Is this story worth eight hours?


Well, it’s not worth eight hours. It is a charming enough story, I guess, and the Count is a charming guy, and Ewan McGregor plays him very winningly. A probably younger, angrier version of myself would have culminated about this. Given that you don’t even have the decency to explain why there had been a Russian Revolution and that someone like Ewan McGregor, who could be charming, is because he never had to do a lick of work in his entire life. And was was drinking Chateauneuf de Pape off the blood of his serfs.


Thank you for that.


There are two or three things interesting about it to me. One of them is the way that it’s it’s an incredibly reactionary idea that you then is also slightly woke in that his best friend Mishka is played by a black man. And that working in the kitchen with names like Alyosha are people of Arabic and Indian descent and who obviously aren’t Russian.


So therefore you’re doing colorblind casting.


Yes.


Okay. As I said, I mean, and that’s the kind of gesture toward modernity and progressiveness. And at the same time, the whole story does seem to be about the leveling awful nature of communism. Given that you don’t even have the decency to explain why there had been a Russian Revolution and that someone like Ewan McGregor, who could be charming, is because he never had to do a lick of work in his entire life. And was was drinking Chateauneuf de Pape off the blood of his serfs.


Thank you for that.


There are two or three things interesting about it to me. One of them is the way that it’s it’s an incredibly reactionary idea that you then is also slightly woke in that his best friend Mishka is played by a black man. And that working in the kitchen with names like Alyosha are people of Arabic and Indian descent and who obviously aren’t Russian.


So therefore you’re doing colorblind casting.


Yes.


Okay. As I said, I mean, and that’s the kind of gesture toward modernity and progressiveness. And at the same time, the whole story does seem to be about the leveling awful nature of communism. Given that you don’t even have the decency to explain why there had been a Russian Revolution and that someone like Ewan McGregor, who could be charming, is because he never had to do a lick of work in his entire life. And was was drinking Chateauneuf de Pape off the blood of his serfs.
Thank you for that.


There are two or three things interesting about it to me. One of them is the way that it’s it’s an incredibly reactionary idea that you then is also slightly woke in that his best friend Mishka is played by a black man. And that working in the kitchen with names like Alyosha are people of Arabic and Indian descent and who obviously aren’t Russian.


So therefore you’re doing colorblind casting.


Yes.


Okay. As I said, I mean, and that’s the kind of gesture toward modernity and progressiveness. And at the same time, the whole story does seem to be about the leveling awful nature of communism. But the one thing I would say that was interesting was I think it’s possible that even a hardened hand like you, John Wiener might have identified a little bit with the count in the following sense, that I feel that I can imagine a great many liberal-minded and maybe even left-wing watchers would think this is also a Trump story, that there’s no real politics, but it’s about you knowing things, being educated, knowing how the world works and being thrown out or being abused by people who don’t really know anything, who don’t read books, who don’t understand the world in a complex way.


They’re just angry. I can imagine that many people who watch that will think, oh, this isn’t actually about the Russian Revolution.


This is about what’s gonna happen here in nine months.


A Gentleman from Moscow is on Paramount Plus and on Showtime, eight episodes.


Finally, on our list of Prestige TV on historical topics is the most immense and gorgeous of all, Shogun, set in 17th century Japan. 10 episodes on Hulu and FX, based on a 1975 bestselling novel by James Clavell, previously a mini-series in 1980.


It’s about the political rivalry and intrigue among feudal lords. And it is about a real history that Lord Torinaga was the founder and first Shogun of the Tokugawa period, which lasted from 1603 to 1867. The problem for us today about the TV show is that the 1975 novel had to fulfill the conventions of its day.


It had to have a white man at the center. And the 2025 miniseries can’t avoid some, at least, of the same plot. John Blackthorne is a risk-taking English sailor played by somebody I didn’t know, Cosmo Jarvis, who ends up shipwrecked and taken prisoner in Japan.


We follow as he learns about his captors.


And of course, there has to be what used to be called a love interest. We have a beautiful, exotic Japanese woman with a mysterious past.


So the structure of the whole series rests on these two, I think we have to say, Eurocentric elements. And of course, it is true that people who made this film know about this.


44 years after the first mini-series, the Japanese characters get a lot more screen time.
But really, isn’t it still the heroic white man who saves the day and the mysterious oriental beauty who still finds him irresistible? Or am I wrong about this?


I think you’re wrong about this. You do have John Blackthorne played by Cosmo Jarvis, who didn’t mean anything to me either. But he’s almost like a placeholder in the series.


It’s very strange that you keep thinking, oh, at some point he’s going to be doing the important stuff in the series. And you’re gonna say, oh, he’s not. He’s there because you actually need a surrogate person, a surrogate Westerner, because that’s part of the story.


That’s what everybody knows about Shogun. But if you took him out, probably 90% of the series would be exactly the same. Maybe in the final episodes, which I haven’t seen, he will come through and save the day and do something important.


But if vou compare it to the 70s version where John Blackthorne is the center of the action, here he’s not the center of the action.


And you realize, oh, he’s this person who’s kind of just constantly complaining. He’s constantly complaining about like not getting enough to do.


Can’t he just put me back on my boat? And the answer is no, because we’ve moved on.


And so now we realize that the story of the rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate is a Japanese story in the same way that the Vietnam War is a Vietnamese story.


But in narrative terms, it does skew things weirdly because you still have to have the romance plot a bit. And you still have to have the white guy there. But you do as you’re watching it, think that you don’t have to have the white guy there.


Why is he there? The other thing in 40 years is the Japanese people now don’t speak halting English. They actually get to speak fluent apanese.


And yet, on the other hand, we don’t care.


The Sympathizer, which is the obvious comparison point, is about West and East also, but it still has a sting and a reality to us.


Whereas the battle between the English and the Portuguese over Japanese rights, or Catholicism and Protestantism, that doesn’t really sting very much.


And there’s nothing going on in the surface about what it’s actually about. Whereas The Sympathizer really raises all sorts of questions along the way. You think, oh, this is really alive to the present moment.


And Shogun is a very enjoyable enough show to watch with great production values and attractive people and all the rest. But there’s nothing at stake for us when we’re watching it, except narratively.
Also, I just want to say the costumes, the setting, the scenery are lavish and magnificent.
They are all of those things. And yet what’s interesting is that it’s not calendar art, but it’s more beautiful in that kind of way.


Whereas the beauty of something like The Sympathizer is a more kinetic and urgent beauty that feels modern.


The other is more pictorially beautiful rather than cinematically beautiful.


Excellent. Shogun, 10 episodes on Hulu and FX. So in conclusion, from our review of The Sympathizer, Manhunt, Gentleman in Moscow and Shogun, I conclude that Prestige TV is not just alive and well, but thriving this season.


I think all four of these shows are worth some sort of attention. The Sympathizer, clearly to my mind, being the best of them.


You know, but Shogun, this version of Shogun, clearly being an advance beyond the one that was a huge hit in the non-Prestige TV days.


Gentleman in Moscow is a very enjoyable show, and Manhunt’s a well-made show. It has good actors. It is spooky.


It teaches you something you didn’t know about Americans. And as you say, it has an interesting contemporary resonance that all but even the people who made it did feel. By the time they were making it, I’m sure they felt that there’s a contemporary resonance.


Fascinating.

Share

More Reviews