HBO’s The Sympathizer, based on Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, greets us with an epigraph. It reads, “All wars are fought twice. The first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.”

It’s fitting, then, that memory becomes its own kind of battlefield throughout the limited series. Our narrator, simply known as “the Captain” (Hoa Xuande), struggles under duress to recall the events of his life as clearly as possible. The purpose of this recollection? A confession he’s writing in a Vietnamese reeducation camp, where any lapse in memory or particularly clear detail could mean the difference between life and death.

The Sympathizer‘s co-creators Park Chan-wook (Decision to Leave, Oldboy) and Don McKellar (Last Night) make a meal out of the Captain’s memories — and the act of remembering itself. In an ever-present voiceover, the Captain will rewind his own thoughts to give us further context for information he’s already provided, apologize for missing any details, and even question (then promptly explain) why he’s narrating certain scenes. It’s a bold tactic, one that captures the slippery, interjection-filled style of Nguyen’s novel. It’s a fun tactic, too, introducing us to the Captain’s contemplative, often darkly funny inner monologue and affording the series major opportunities for stylistic flair.

Still, given the confession’s context, The Sympathizer is never far from a brutal reminder of the stakes at play. Tragedy haunts its blend of satire and espionage thriller throughout, resulting in challenging, can’t-miss TV magic.

What’s The Sympathizer about?

A man in a blue collared shirt sitting in a movie theater, looking anxious.

Hoa Xuande in “The Sympathizer.”
Credit: Hopper Stone / HBO

Before the Captain was stuck in a reeducation camp, he was a valuable member of the American-backed South Vietnamese secret police — and a mole for the Communist North Vietnamese forces. The double life of a spy is just one of many contradictions the Captain claims make him “a man with two faces.” He’s the child of a Vietnamese mother and a French father, and therefore feels constantly torn between two worlds, two cultures, two identities. The Captain is even torn between his childhood best friends: communist revolutionary Man (Duy Nguyen), who doubles as his handler; and staunch Southern supporter Bon (Fred Nguyen Khan), who doesn’t suspect the secret dealings of either of his fellow self-proclaimed “Three Musketeers.”

In the days leading up to the fall of Saigon, the three make plans to escape to America with the Captain’s employer, the influential General (Toan Le). Of course, Man really plans on staying behind and enjoying Northern Vietnam’s victory. So does the Captain, until Man reveals his next mission: Go to America and continue to report on the General’s activities.

One harrowing escape later, the Captain and Bon are refugees living in America. For the Captain, this journey marks a return, as he studied there in his youth. Yet the United States presents new challenges for his revolutionary activities, including the simple question of whether he’s equipped to balance his dual lives much longer.

The Sympathizer explores the impact of the Vietnam War through a specifically Vietnamese lens.

Three men in a cafe look down at a baby, who is off-camera.

Hoa Xuande, Fred Nguyen Khan, and Duy Nguyen in “The Sympathizer.”
Credit: Hopper Stone / HBO

Another challenge the Captain faces in America is the greater amount of American influence on him — something he’s clearly been feeling all his life but which escalates now thanks to his arrival back on American soil. The forces of colonialism he encounters are many, but they all share one face: that of Robert Downey Jr. Fresh off his Oppenheimer Oscar win, Downey Jr. plays four figures intertwined with the American establishment: a CIA agent, a professor of “Oriental Studies,” a congressman, and a movie director.

Said director is working on an Apocalypse Now-esque film titled The Hamlet. The Captain agrees to be the film’s cultural consultant, fighting behind the camera to create an onscreen version of Vietnam that isn’t so Americanized and flattened. While his own attempts are not always successful, The Sympathizer‘s are decidedly more so. The series centers Vietnam throughout, reminding us in that same opening epigraph about memory that while Americans call the conflict in Vietnam the “Vietnam War,” the Vietnamese call it the “American War.”

Given that we’re in the Captain’s head for the entire series, it’s his perspective that defines The Sympathizer most. We see him question how “Vietnamese” he is — and how Vietnamese other people think he is. We see him devote his life to the communist cause, yet still find common ground with friends like Bon, who is ostensibly his enemy. What we don’t see is him giving any grace to the Americans who treat him as a pawn, or who spout racist rhetoric disguised as academic discussion at him.

Robert Downey Jr. goes big in The Sympathizer, but Hoa Xuande steals the show.

Two men at a bar listen to a recording, each with one headphone.

Robert Downey Jr. and Hoa Xuande in “The Sympathizer.”
Credit: Hopper Stone / HBO

Downey Jr.’s work in this space often borders on the cartoonish side, with his professor character falling fully into caricature. The heightened performances do occasionally break the immersion of the show, and I often swung between loathing them and loving them. However, this over-the-top-ness fully discredits anything these Americans throw at the Captain, in keeping with the show’s Vietnamese focus.

Xuande’s work is marvelously grounded in the face of this gallery of buffoons: While he may play along with them, there’s always a hint of disgust, or horror, bubbling just below the surface. Some of the show’s best scenes are those in which the Captain finds a way to snipe back at Downey Jr.’s quartet, or when he gets to poke fun at them when they’re not around. One such standout comes when he discusses the professor of Oriental Studies along with the department’s secretary, Ms. Mori (a sharp, if underutilized, Sandra Oh). What starts as a takedown of the professor’s fetishization of Mori’s Japanese heritage morphs into a frank conversation about everything from masturbation to murder. The scene and Xuande’s performance run the gamut from hilarious to serious to seductive in the blink of an eye — an excellent snapshot of his range and of the show’s tonal variety.

Park Chan-wook makes The Sympathizer the most stylized show on TV.

A man writing a letter in the front seat of a car; light from a yellow smiley face sign is reflected in the window.

Hoa Xuande in “The Sympathizer.”
Credit: Hopper Stone / HBO

The Sympathizer dances from hilarious satire to pulse-pounding thriller at the drop of the hat, and nothing captures that quite like Park’s direction of the show’s first three episodes. There is an inescapable dynamism to each beat of these episodes, thanks to sharp zooms, whip pans, and transitions that can really only be described as bangers. (Just wait until you see what Park does with a hard-boiled egg, or a hubcap.)

The Sympathizer does lose some of that dynamism once Park leaves the director’s chair, but the remaining four episodes aren’t without their fair share of inventive (and occasionally surreal) filmmaking decisions from Marc Munden and Fernando Meirelles. And the more The Sympathizer embraces its surrealism, the more we feel drawn into the Captain’s memories, where we’re lucky enough to witness the horrors and wonders of life on that strange, funny, and terrifying battlefield.

The Sympathizer premieres April 14 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and Max.

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