The Sympathizer Review: Four Robert Downey Jrs. Set The Tone

HBO's latest drama combines the Vietnam War, American cinema, and plenty of Robert Downey Jr.

Hoa Xuande and Robert Downey Jr. in The Sympathizer.
The Sympathizer Photo: Hopper Stone | HBO

This The Sympathizer review contains no spoilers.

Celebrated South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, The Handmaiden) takes his auteur-driven vision to HBO with the new television series The Sympathizer. Adapting the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2015 novel of the same name by Viet Thanh Nguyen, the series follows a Vietnamese double agent after he flees the country, finding himself drawn deep into a strange juxtaposition of espionage and Hollywood filmmaking. With its off-kilter tone and a quartet of wonderfully weird performances from co-star and executive producer Robert Downey, Jr., The Sympathizer may not be everyone’s cup of tea but, what it does, it does very well.

The Sympathizer opens under the backdrop of the fall of Saigon in 1975, following an unnamed protagonist known and credited simply as “The Captain,” played by Hoa Xuande. Secretly working as a double agent on behalf of the North Vietnamese government, the Captain serves as the right-hand man for a South Vietnamese general (Toan Le) who barely escapes to Los Angeles with the help of the CIA. As the Captain continues to maintain the trust of the general, he encounters various American figures who want to use his expertise and insight towards making a Vietnam War film in Hollywood.

Let’s get the big thing that everyone has fixated since the first major details about The Sympathizer emerged: Robert Downey, Jr. Fresh off his Academy Award win for Oppenheimer, Downey plays CIA handler Claude, East Asian-obsessed Professor Hammer and two public figures linked to the planned movie production. While Downey is always captivating to watch, with his assortment of hair pieces, costumes, and accents, not all of his performances are created equal, with some more distracting from a given scene rather than elevating the material. Downey is at his best when he plays the scene rather than the character, when his performance complements Xuande rather than indulging too much in the creative playground afforded him.

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And it should be noted that the series really is Xuande’s show, with Downey wisely not the focus of the story, making his appearances that much more unpredictable and impactful. There is an earnest conflict that Xuande imbues into his performance as the Captain, a man torn between allegiances and countries that come with real, and occasionally bloody, consequences to maintain the facade he has built for himself. Given the premise, Xuande does a lot of the show’s heavy lifting and he is more than up for the task, though his scenes with co-star Sandra Oh play particularly well, with Oh playing the Captain’s acerbic colleague and love interest Ms. Mori.

The best way to describe the overarching tone to The Sympathizer is picaresque, which is to say focused on a morally ambiguous protagonist with a touch of whimsy to the proceedings. This isn’t to say there aren’t genuine stakes and moments of vicious intensity to the show, there are and they only escalate as the series progresses, but audiences might be caught off-guard how light the tone often is, along with how goofy some of the characters are presented. The Sympathizer is very much a period piece drama, but there are moments when it feels like a borderline parody as it oscillates tonally.

With these shifts in severity in mind, The Sympathizer does ask its audience to be patient in its execution, rather than front-loading it with action, tension, or comedy. Each episode does feature its own natural climax to the arc, but this is a story that’s unfolding at a deliberate pace rather than rushing to its big payoffs. It will be interesting to see how audiences react to the show’s sense of pacing when the first season becomes available to stream all at once, rather than released on an weekly episodic drip; indeed a simultaneous launch on Max may have been the better move rather than the slow burn the show embarks on instead.

It should be said that The Sympathizer does eventually reach those rewarding moments for the viewer, even if it takes two or three episodes to get there. The story’s themes of clashing allegiances and questions of identity and a self-aware approach to its characters, with moments of absurdist slice-of-life vignettes, falls right in Park Chan-wook’s wheelhouse. The Captain is a man without a country, at least the country he believes to exist, now in a strange land filled with Robert Downey, Jrs., each of whom speak to a different facet of the American machine our protagonist is embedded into.

The Sympathizer is an odyssey through the malaise of a war’s aftermath in resolving loose ends. The Captain’s side won the war with the capture of Saigon, but his work isn’t over as he continues his ruse into the United States. Watching him make the best of his time in Los Angeles while periodically being reminded of his mission and its cost towards his soul forms the crux of the series and it’s when these two intersect that the series is at its most enjoyable and riveting.

Subverting the typical expectations for a Vietnam War-linked narrative, The Sympathizer is at turns both hilarious and heartbreaking, but certainly never boring. Viewers are sure to be caught off-guard with its tonal shifts and madcap performances by Downey but, beneath this facade run deeper questions about self-identity, including the loss of one’s discernible place in the wider world. Intentionally uneven in its execution, The Sympathizer is a big creative swing for a prestige American television platform and, fortunately, it mostly connects.

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The Sympathizer premieres Sunday, April 14 at 9 p.m. ET.


4 out of 5