Park Chan-wook’s ‘The Sympathizer’ Adapts Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Acclaimed Novel Into a Stirring Tale of War, Immigration and Espionage 

The Vietnam War has been a topic of American movies and TV since the days of the conflict itself. Rarely, in U.S. media at least, does the story get told from a purely Vietnamese perspective. “The Sympathizer” is an ambitious HBO limited series that looks at the war not only from the Vietnamese perspective, but in a broader context. Based on the great Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen, this adaptation helmed by acclaimed director Park Chan-wook (“Oldboy,” “Decision to Leave”) becomes a unique exploration of another side to the immigrant experience. Cities like Los Angeles were marked by an influx of immigrants from Vietnam, and later Central America, that carried with them the baggage of Cold War conflicts. These were wars the U.S. was directly involved in. How all of it swirls into the formation of one’s identity is at the heart of this riveting series.

The unnamed narrator of this story is only known as the Captain (Hoa Xuande). He is half-French and half-Vietnamese, working as a secret police acolyte of the General (Toan Le), who forms part of the South Vietnamese military elite in 1975. The real orders are given by a CIA officer, Claude (Robert Downey Jr., who plays about four roles like a virtuoso), a cynical American casually overseeing the torture of Communist operatives from North Vietnam. The war is reaching its climax as the North is getting closer to Saigon and the Americans are practically letting go of their client regime. Meanwhile, the Captain is harboring quite the secret: He’s actually a Communist spy reporting on the General for his handler, Man (Duy Nguyen). As the Katyusha rockets get closer, Captain is surprised to get new orders. He is to flee with the General and his family to Los Angeles, California, in order to keep tabs on a potential counterrevolutionary threat from abroad. 

When it comes to diaspora stories, “The Sympathizer” stands out by reflecting on the narratives typically left out. Like the Cubans in Florida and Iranians in Southern California, the wave of Vietnamese immigrants who arrived right as the war was ending were a mix of common citizens, political expatriates and die hards ready to take the country back. With dashes of satire, Chan-wook, who also directs the first two episodes of the seven, and writer Don McKellar turn this into a psychological parable about history and dueling identities. The Captain genuinely likes American culture, even if he can’t admit it to his real boss. He also doesn’t necessarily hate the General, whose teen daughter, Lana (Vy Le), he genuinely cares for. Part of his expertise as a spy is that he once studied at UCLA under a flamboyant professor (also played by Robert Downey Jr.), who masks condescending racism by claiming to be an expert on Asian culture. His office assistant, Ms. Sofia Mori (Sandra Oh), sees through the nonsense and starts a fling with the Captain when he returns after the war. 

The Captain’s journey is like a collection of these personalities all linked to the war and their various interests or lack thereof. “The Sympathizer” becomes the flip side of the cliché American Dream scenario of most immigrant stories. The General opens a successful liquor store, but in the backroom plans a looney invasion of Vietnam with fellow refugees similar to the Bay of Pigs. He’s still in the mindset of the old order, demanding the Captain kill suspected traitors. Another character played by Downey Jr. is a white Republican politician railing against Marxism with his trophy Cuban wife, also pumping money into the General’s schemes. Claude keeps hovering around the Captain as well, clearly suspecting something but preferring to believe this man is a loyal servant to the end. This triangle is a stinging commentary on the way U.S. interference also reaches cultural levels. Through Claude, the Captain gets a job as an advisor on a “Casualties of War”-style epic being directed by a pompous Hollywood filmmaker (also played by Downey Jr.). 

The episode dealing with the production of this movie is one of the series’ best. The Captain tries to get the vain filmmaker to at least include some actual Vietnamese dialogue. Somehow the sets are incredibly authentic but there are no Vietnamese actors. David Duchovny shines here as a demented method actor who takes his role of a scruffy soldier way too seriously, with funny winks at “The Godfather” and the infamously dicey production of “Apocalypse Now.” For years, movies have told stories from our wars abroad without bothering to bring in the voices of who we’ve invaded. At least the Captain’s “blood brother,” Bon (Fred Nguyen Khan), finds some catharsis since he’s the most haunted of the characters, forever driven mad by watching his wife and baby die during the rush to flee Saigon. Robert Downey Jr. lets loose in this section, as if channeling every wacky auteur he’s ever worked with. You have to laugh and cry when the Captain makes some valid complaints about the script and the director snaps, yelling “I’m doing this for you!” 

Instead of being an outright political commentary on the Vietnam War, “The Sympathizer” aims for a more layered overview of the general human toll and its aftermath. The Captain eventually finds himself in a reeducation camp run by the new regime, forced to explain the hazy details of his mission. But it’s not as if the U.S.-backed government the Viet Cong overthrew didn’t plant the seeds of its own destruction. A recurring nightmare for the Captain is having watched the rape and torture of a comrade by the General’s men, with Claude coldly stating “this has to be done.” We bemoan the rise of militant groups in the Middle East or strongmen in Latin America while conveniently forgetting the background histories. There is also a farcical grandeur to figures like the Captain and Bon, for whom the war means more than headlines, it was something quite personal which will obsess them until the end. The writing captures those micro debates that take place within diasporas, as when the Captain mocks Sonny (Alan Trong), a Vietnamese journalist and fellow immigrant who gets self-righteous about the war but never went back to fight. 

The use of a spy in this story is quite brilliant, because the Captain becomes a model for what Hannah Arendt once termed, “stateless persons.” By the end, he neither belongs to Vietnam or the United States. When societies go through revolutions or other major shifts, some individuals are left adrift. One can only imagine the stories Venezuelans, Palestinians and Ukrainians will now be bringing to our shores. Told with a kinetic visual style, “The Sympathizer” is more a work of memory than mere suspense. The Captain’s mission generates its own, natural tension, but what proves more effective is how he must now build his own, more intimate identity. He’s seen as a “half-breed” by some of his community, while the Americans conveniently mold his nation’s conflict for their own agendas, cynically letting someone like the General go when it’s too much. “The Sympathizer” is an important series about what the Vietnam War has truly meant, and a sharp story about how we have our roots but in the end, have to build our own histories.

The Sympathizer” premieres April 14 and airs Sundays at 9 pm ET on HBO.