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The Sympathizer’s Man of Two Faces

Hoa Xuande in Park Chan-wook and Don McKellar’s The Sympathizer (2024)

“I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces,” begins the nameless Captain, introducing himself as the narrator of The Sympathizer, the debut novel from Viet Thanh Nguyen and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016. The Captain is the blue-eyed, biracial son of a French priest and a Vietnamese mother who used to tell him, “Remember, you’re not half of anything, you’re twice of everything.” He’s also a communist informant embedded in the office of a South Vietnamese leader everyone refers to simply as the General.

The Captain’s story begins a few months before the fall of Saigon in 1975, and after a harrowing escape, his handlers in the North order him to stick with the General, who simmers in Los Angeles, colluding with American politicians on plans to retake the country. “It’s as if the Captain starts out in a Coen brothers movie and ends up in a George Orwell novel, an unenviable trajectory,” observes Laura Miller in Slate.

The Sympathizer is “a psychological thriller, a war story, a political satire, a cri de coeur, and an investigation of identity, sifted through a mesh of framing devices and unfolding largely within the fractured interiority of a man who has yet to discover who he is or what he believes,” writes Time’s Judy Berman. The seven-episode adaptation cowritten by showrunners Park Chan-wook (Decision to Leave) and Don McKellar (Last Night) and now airing on HBO and streaming on Max “matches executive producer Nguyen’s brilliant novel in both ambition and execution.”

In her New Yorker profile of Park, who directs the first three episodes, Jia Tolentino notes that, as he wrote the novel, Nguyen drew tonal inspiration from Park’s Oldboy (2003). “Nguyen told me that he wanted his book ‘to tell a story in overpowering language,’ and he saw a ‘distinct parallel in the sumptuousness and weirdness’ of Park’s style,” writes Tolentino.

“For decades,” writes Paste’s Rory Doherty, “Park’s direction has accommodated both dynamic, intensely-felt performances and tightly designed, eye-catching style. He navigates the precarious, panicked tension of Saigon’s final days before falling to the North Vietnamese in the first episode with rhythm and purpose, and we’re reminded how arresting characters can be under his watch.”

Marc Munden, a former assistant to Mike Leigh, Derek Jarman, and Terence Davies who later worked on such British series as Utopia (2013–2014), directs the final three episodes and Fernando Meirelles (City of God) takes on the one in the middle. For Nandini Balial at RogerEbert.com, it’s here that the series “falters. What was once enthralling becomes merely competent; most of all, the latter two directors lack Park’s audacious levity.”

“Park and McKellar’s show blends styles with wild abandon, such that trace elements of Catch-22, The Manchurian Candidate, and the works of Kurt Vonnegut, John Le Carré, and Phillip Roth can all be detected,” writes Nick Schager at the Daily Beast. As a series, The Sympathizer is “a venture that ultimately falls victim to its own bifurcations, torn apart by its desire to serve myriad masters at the same time.”

Hoa Xuande plays the Captain “with just the right mix of wry humor and vulnerability,” writes Rolling Stone’s Alan Sepinwall. Xuande “finds ways to signal with his face all the things the Captain can’t allow himself to say aloud, and holds this whole weird story together. He’s great.” In Meirelles’s episode, the Captain is hired as a consultant to a brash American director working on a potential blockbuster about the Vietnam War, which, as both the book and series remind us, is known to the Vietnamese as the American War.

The director will remind some of Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now), others of Oliver Stone (Platoon), and he’s portrayed by another of the show’s executive producers, Robert Downey Jr. Downey plays “not one smug imperialist,” writes Alison Herman in Variety, “but a suite of them: the Captain’s CIA mentor in the dark art of information-gathering, the Orientalist professor who taught him as a college student in Los Angeles, the Congressman who cultivates South Vietnamese refugees in Southern California as a political base,” and the Hollywood director. “This approach both deploys and diffuses Downey’s star power.”

For the Hollywood Reporter’s Daniel Fienberg, “what Downey does in The Sympathizer hits that sweet spot between ‘ridiculously entertaining’ and ‘a whole lot of acting’ that award-givers love. But two things can be true: Downey’s performance in The Sympathizer can be saluted as a dexterous feat of actorly gymnastics. At the same time, it’s the misplaced fulcrum that too often causes [the series] to lose its tonal and narrative balance.”

In the Los Angeles Times, though, Richard Lloyd doesn’t see Downey as a fulcrum at all: “His characters are more symbolic than anything—in their settled arrogance immune to any sort of self-interrogation or change—while everything of real interest happens to the Vietnamese characters and within the Vietnamese community, which, obviously, is not monolithic, and not at all settled.”

For Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk, The Sympathizer is “a graceful, darkly funny narrativization of Postcolonialism 101.” The “failures” of the series “have meat to them. They’re the result of someone making a choice. The series is at its best when Park’s visuals and narrative devices clearly articulate everything going on under the story’s hood. It’s rare an essay prompt feels this fun.”

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