Robert Downey Jr. Explores the Vietnam War in 'The Sympathizer'

Exploring intricate character dynamics in HBO's latest series

by Zain ul Abedin
Robert Downey Jr. Explores the Vietnam War in 'The Sympathizer'
© Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

In a bold move into television, Robert Downey Jr., fresh off his Oscar win, dives into the complex and contentious history of the Vietnam War with HBO’s new series "The Sympathizer." This darkly satirical series, which Downey also produces, ambitiously portrays the war’s tangled legacy through multiple, distinct roles, showcasing his versatile acting prowess.

However, the series wavers under the weight of its narrative ambitions, oscillating between brilliant and muddled storytelling. "The Sympathizer" is adapted from Viet Thanh Nguyen's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and directed in part by the acclaimed South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook, known for his works like "Oldboy" and "Decision to Leave." This collaboration sets high expectations with a stylistic nod to the 1970s, reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino’s cinematic flair.

However, as the series unfolds, it struggles to maintain its initial promise, often getting lost in its intricate plot. The series centers around the Captain, played compellingly by Hoa Xuande, a half-Vietnamese, half-French secret police officer.

The Captain leads a dangerous double life, secretly aiding the North Vietnamese in a war-torn landscape while maintaining close ties with his two friends, portrayed by Duy Nguyen and Fred Nguyen Khan. His story is one of divided loyalties, mirroring the fractured identity of Vietnam itself during and after the conflict.

Narrative Complexity Unraveled

"The Sympathizer" employs a non-linear narrative, frequently using flashbacks to add depth to the Captain’s story, from the fall of Saigon to his fraught resettlement in the United States.

These elements should enrich the narrative, but instead, they contribute to a disjointed viewing experience. Downey's roles, ranging from a CIA operative to a deranged film director, though intended to be impactful, often feel overwrought and distract from the central storyline.

Adding to the cast, Sandra Oh plays an American coworker who navigates corporate racism. David Duchovny stars as a volatile method actor, adding layers to the narrative’s exploration of identity and conflict. However, while intriguing, these additions sometimes feel like detours that detract from the main narrative.

Despite its shortcomings, "The Sympathizer" does not shy away from its ambitions, illustrating the war's contradictions through a lens of heightened reality, akin to the surrealistic approach of "Apocalypse Now." It’s a narrative gamble that only partially pays off, shadowed by its struggle to balance satirical elements with its dramatic aspirations.

Robert Downey Jr.' s commitment to bringing such a layered and challenging story to television deserves commendation. He uses his star power to highlight a pivotal chapter in history and brings Park Chan-wook's visionary direction to an American audience.

However, despite these commendable efforts, "The Sympathizer" may leave viewers wanting more coherence from its high-concept approach. "The Sympathizer" debuts on HBO on April 14 at 9 p.m. ET. While imperfect, it’s a daring venture that prompts reflection on the enduring impacts of the Vietnam War. HBO, like CNN, is a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery, continuing its tradition of bold, original programming.

Robert Downey Jr. Hbo