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The Sympathizer review: a masterful spy thriller

Hoa Xuande and Robert Downey Jr. sit at a dinner table together in The Sympathizer.
The Sympathizer
“HBO and Park Chan-wook's The Sympathizer is a thematically rich, stylistically refreshing miniseries that you won't ever want to look away from.”
  • Awe-inspiring direction throughout
  • An endlessly pleasing blend of comedy and drama
  • A densely layered story that invites multiple rewatches
  • A few unnecessary supporting characters

Adapting a piece of fiction like The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning debut novel, is no easy feat. The book, among the most acclaimed of the past decade, is thematically rich and formally playful. It follows its own set of rules and does so with alluring gusto. Turning it into a TV series would be one thing, but making it into a great one that actually holds on to the depth and complexity of its source material would be another, much more difficult, challenge altogether. That is, nonetheless, exactly what HBO, Oldboy director Park Chan-wook, and co-creator Don McKellar have done.

The Sympathizer, which airs on HBO and streams on Max, is one of the most dizzying TV productions of recent memory. It’s an endlessly watchable, provocative, and stylistically bold thriller that juggles so many moments of existential drama, pitch-black comedy, and good old-fashioned suspense across its seven episodes that one is frequently left with their jaw on the floor. It ranks easily right alongside FX’s Shōgun, Netflix’s Ripley, and Amazon’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith as one of the very best TV shows of the year.

Hoa Xuande holds a burning letter in The Sympathizer.
Hopper Stone / HBO

Sticking as close to its source material’s plot as it can, The Sympathizer tells the twisty tale of the Captain (Cowboy Bebop star Hoa Xuande), a North Vietnamese spy working undercover in the mid-1970s to undermine the capitalistic efforts of not only his South Vietnamese boss, known only as the General (Toan Le), but also his longtime CIA handler, Claude (2024 Oscar winner Robert Downey Jr.). When it looks like the North Vietnamese are finally on the verge of retaking Saigon and ending the Vietnam War, the Captain is informed by his fellow communist sympathizer and longtime friend, Man (Duy Nguyễn), that he will not be allowed to stay in his home country.

Instead, the Captain is ordered to go to America and continue reporting on the General’s actions and plans, which he does. The longer he stays in America, though, the more conflicted the Captain becomes over his continued role in a war that many believe to be over. The Sympathizer, for its part, wildly bounces around in time as it charts its protagonist’s journey from Vietnam to America and back again as he tries to convince a skeptical North Vietnamese agent that he is the loyal communist spy he claims to be. The series, like the book its based on, uses the Captain’s protracted confession in the latter period as a framing device for its entire story. That allows it a digressive kind of freedom in its telling that makes watching The Sympathizer consistently entertaining and unpredictable.

The show has a lot of information that it has to communicate at all times, and yet its purposefully convoluted plot never feels overwhelming or confusing. That is, in no small part, due to the rigorous nature of Park and McKellar’s scripts, as well as the latter’s direction of The Sympathizer‘s stunning first three episodes (Marc Munden and City of God filmmaker Fernando Meirelles direct its other chapters). As a director, Park has always been skilled at communicating complex layers of information in a manner that is not just digestible, but invigoratingly visual. That ability is on full display in The Sympathizer, a series that uses simple visual tricks like cutaways, observational camera pans, fast-forwards, and rewinds to further engross viewers not only in the Captain’s book-length confession. but also his ever-turbulent mental state.

Hoa Xuande, Fred Nguyen Khan, and Duy Nguyen sit and stand together in The Sympathizer.
Hopper Stone / HBO

The Sympathizer‘s darkly comic streak also does a lot to make the considerable load of information it carries on its back seem lighter than it is. The series, in true Park Chan-wook fashion, routinely blends moments of horror, violence, and tragedy with instances of wry, occasionally slapstick humor. In one scene, the Captain impulsively covers up the face of a man he’s about to kill with a takeout bag from a local burger place — its smiley logo staring back at him as he pulls the trigger of his gun. In subsequent episodes, the Captain sees the chain’s smirking logo on lampshades, car rims, and even the moon itself. It’s a recurring beat that offers important insight into the character’s growing guilt over his actions, but it’s also a morbidly funny visual gag that feels of a piece with the overall surreality of The Sympathizer‘s style and story.

Thanks to its 1970s Hollywood-inspired details and overarching, wild creative spirit, The Sympathizer emerges as a TV show that looks and moves unlike any other. At times, its editing rhythms feel shockingly experimental. Donald Graham Burt and Alec Hammond’s colorful production design, meanwhile, only makes it feel all the more heightened and dreamlike, and the same goes for Downey Jr.’s contributions. The longtime Marvel star plays multiple roles in The Sympathizer and dons completely different, mostly transformative looks for each. He appears throughout the series as not just Claude, but also “Napalm” Ned, a military veteran turned politician; Professor Hammer, a racist academic who runs his college’s “Oriental Studies” program; and Niko, an egotistical filmmaker who hires the Captain to help him make an “authentic” movie about the Vietnam War.

Downey Jr.’s performances are, for the most part, glorious to witness, and his multiple roles serve a greater purpose in The Sympathizer than just letting its biggest star go crazy on-screen. They make the show’s oddball approach to its story explicit and, even more importantly, make the Captain’s struggle to hold onto his identity seem all the more slippery. After all, how is someone supposed to keep hold of themselves when not only are they playing different parts at once, but so it seems is everyone else?

The fact that The Sympathizer is able to effectively ask such questions in the cartoonish way it does is proof of just how firm of a grip it has on its story and tone at all times. As is the case with so many of the movies that Park Chan-wook has had a hand in over the years, watching it feels a bit like watching the greatest magic act you’ll ever see. It pulls off more seemingly impossible tricks than most TV shows would ever dream of attempting, and it’s got even more aces hidden up its sleeves than you’ll see coming. Sometimes, all one can do is sit back and clap.

The Sympathizer premieres Sunday, April 14 on HBO. New episodes debut weekly on Sundays. Digital Trends was given early access to all seven of the show’s installments.

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Alex Welch
Alex is a TV and movies writer based out of Los Angeles. In addition to Digital Trends, his work has been published by…
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