Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

The New York Times | ‘The Sympathizer’ Opens a Counteroffensive on Vietnam War Movies

“HBO’s series is not just a good story. It’s a sharp piece of film criticism” —James Poniewozik writes for The New York Times

Hoa Xuande plays a double agent in “The Sympathizer,” a black comedy that both resembles and critiques Vietnam War movies.Credit…Hopper Stone/HBO

HBO has long defined itself in contrast to mainstream television — “It’s not TV,” as the slogan goes — but in many ways its history is one of revising and responding to the movies. “The Sopranos” updated the mafia movie (and its characters quoted, and were influenced by, films like “The Godfather”). “Game of Thrones” dirtied up the high-fantasy genre; “Deadwood” the Western; “Watchmen” the superhero story.

But the network has never given us its longform version of, or rebuttal to, one Hollywood staple: the Vietnam War movie (unless one counts the alternative history aspects of “Watchmen”). Until now, with “The Sympathizer,” Park Chan-wook’s kinetic and darkly hilarious adaptation (with the co-showrunner Don McKellar) of the novel by the Vietnamese American author Viet Thanh Nguyen.

The seven-episode series is many things. It’s an exploration of dual identity: The protagonist, known only as the Captain (Hoa Xuande), is a half-French, half-Vietnamese communist double agent planted as an aide to the General (Toan Le), a leader of the South Vietnamese secret police. It’s a spy thriller, a satire of colonialism and its many faces — many of them Robert Downey Jr.’s — and an exploration of the complications of love and memory.

But it’s also an intense dialogue and argument with the movies. It is simultaneously its own Vietnam War movie, bold, inventive and sometimes bloody, as well as a pointed, detailed work of movie criticism.

In “The Sympathizer,” which began airing in April, the movies are a continuation of war by other means. Its fixation on film begins early. Retelling his story in a postwar re-education camp — the framing device for the series — the Captain recalls watching the vicious interrogation of a communist agent on the stage of a movie theater, where the marquee sign for “Emmanuelle” is coming down, and the one for Charles Bronson’s “Death Wish” is hoisted into place. Even in Hollywood’s dream vision, beauty gives way to an American pointing an oversized gun.

“Hollywood” is a metonym for America in “The Sympathizer”; it is the country’s front door, its export and its weapon. The Captain’s C.I.A. contact, Claude (Downey), lectures his “protégé” (who he is unaware is a communist) about American pop culture, expounding to him about the Isley Brothers and the Herbie Hancock score for “Death Wish.” Later, Claude tells him about the C.I.A.’s interest in keeping tabs on film directors: “As long as we can keep them within the nebulous bounds of humanism but with no actionable political ideology, they’re completely harmless.”

For Nguyen, who came to the United States with his family in 1975, the movies were potent and personal. “I grew up when America was fighting its war in Vietnam all over again, this time onscreen,” he recalled in a 2022 commencement speech. “Vietnam was our country and this was our war, and yet our only place in American movies was to be killed, raped, threatened or rescued.”

The adaptation of his novel dramatizes this in its centerpiece fourth episode, which premiered Sunday. The Captain, sent to America after the war to keep an eye on the General in exile, is hired as a consultant for “The Hamlet,” an “Apocalypse Now”–like film by a blowhard American auteur, Nikos, again played by Downey. (Downey also plays an academic peddling theories about the “Oriental” mind-set and a right-wing politician who displays a photo of himself with John Wayne, whose “The Green Berets” tried to rouse support for the war.)

Robert Downey Jr. plays an obnoxious filmmaker, among several other characters, in the series

The filming takes the Captain into 1970s Hollywood’s heart of dimness. Nikos proclaims that he’s making “The Hamlet” to give voice to the Vietnamese people’s pain, but he neglects to give his Vietnamese characters any dialogue. When he agrees to add lines for them, he runs into the small problem that none of the extras hired to play the villagers are Vietnamese or speak the language.

(The multiple casting of Downey, by the way, is arguably a visual riff on this history of the movies treating Asians in general, and Vietnamese in particular, as interchangeable: Every aspect of imperialism, it conveys, is the same face in different makeup. But in a series that’s meant to foreground the Vietnamese in their own story, the device is showy and distracting because … well, it’s a whole lot of Robert Downey Jrs.)

The Captain volunteers to solve the problem, rounding up a group of Vietnamese expats to fill the extra roles, including his friend Bon (Fred Nguyen Khan), who proves to have a talent for getting killed, repeatedly, in a variety of costumes and makeup.

But the Captain’s solution introduces its own complications. His refugee extras, who fled the communists, don’t want to play Viet Cong onscreen. “Why do we make art,” the Captain pleads with them, “if not to explore the full complexity of life?” His speech doesn’t persuade anyone, but an offer of an extra $10 in pay does.

Park, the director of the relentless and sanguinary “Oldboy,” is an apt fit for this story, able to both render the thrill of actual action and satirize the absurdity of action moviemaking. (Park and McKellar wrote the fourth episode, which is directed by Fernando Meirelles.) On set, the Captain meets a Korean American actor (played by John Cho), whose résumé includes characters of multiple Asian ethnicities who have been beaten to death by Robert Mitchum, stabbed by Ernest Borgnine and shot by Frank Sinatra. An overbearing method actor (David Duchovny) plays his role as a war criminal with disturbing fidelity.

The episode builds to the movie-within-a-show’s climax, the rape of a village woman whom Nikos has named for the Captain’s mother. Though Nikos considers it a “tribute,” the Captain is appalled. (“You should be thanking me!” Nikos complains.) It’s too much for the Captain, whom Xuande plays as a man expert at mastering his emotions and his affect. He is fired and breaks up the scene’s shooting, and while leaving the set, he’s injured in a pyrotechnic blast meant to simulate an airstrike against the Vietnamese hamlet.

The Captain survives the devastation of his country only to be blown up by the simulacrum of the war he escaped. But Nikos gets the explosions he needs, and “The Hamlet” is released into the world.

“This movie is trash,” a Vietnamese character later says philosophically, “but that’s only from our perspective. He’s an American, and from an American perspective, it’s pretty progressive.”

This theme — perspectives and the lenses that express and determine them — is what makes “The Sympathizer” both an ingenious critique of war movies and an inventive war story of its own. The series opens with a statement displayed onscreen: “All wars are fought twice / The first time on the battlefield / the second time in memory.” Sly and passionate, “The Sympathizer” joins this battle on a third front: in the pictures.

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