'The Sympathizer' Stumbles: Not Even Robert Downey Jr. Can Clear the Confusion

Exploring 'The Sympathizer's' ambitious yet faltering narrative approach

by Zain ul Abedin
'The Sympathizer' Stumbles: Not Even Robert Downey Jr. Can Clear the Confusion
© JC Olivera/Getty Images

Despite its prestigious trappings and the backing of heavyweight talents like Robert Downey Jr. and Park Chan-wook, HBO's adaptation of "The Sympathizer," based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen, struggles to deliver the compelling narrative its premise promises.

The show, airing Sundays at 9 EDT/PDT and streaming on Max, aims to delve into the complex layers of the Vietnam War and espionage but ends up as an underwhelming, overly stylized concoction that fails to resonate with its audience, meriting a paltry ?½ out of four.

Set in the mid-1970s during the tumultuous end of the Vietnam War, "The Sympathizer" introduces us to the Captain, played by Hoa Xuande, who is a Viet Cong operative embedded within the South Vietnamese secret police. To his American and South Vietnamese peers, he is a loyal lieutenant to a ludicrously inept General (Toan Le).

Secretly, however, he passes intelligence to the communists. As the war concludes and the Americans withdraw from Saigon, the Captain is dispatched to Los Angeles as a refugee, continuing his covert duties. In Los Angeles, the Captain's journey becomes a personal odyssey marked by encounters with various manipulative paternal figures—all portrayed by Robert Downey Jr.

under layers of prosthetic makeup, embodying roles such as a CIA operative, a college professor, a film director, and a congressman. The Captain's life is further complicated by his relationship with Sofia Mori (Sandra Oh), an older Japanese American woman keen to shed her Asian roots, unlike the Captain who clings to his.

Narrative Confusion Unraveled

However, the series falters in maintaining narrative coherence amidst its complex themes and multiple timelines. The disjointed storytelling fails to establish a clear narrative flow, leaving the audience struggling to connect with the Captain's internal and external conflicts.

The character-driven drama intended to depict a man torn between ideological loyalty and cultural assimilation is lost in a convoluted presentation that reduces the characters to mere symbols rather than fleshed-out individuals.

Moreover, "The Sympathizer" employs a narrative device of shifting timelines that more often confuses than clarifies. This approach, while perhaps effective in the novel's print format, where readers engage at their own pace, proves cumbersome on screen.

It undermines the potential impact of the narrative, making it difficult for viewers to engage deeply with the story or its protagonist. Despite its critical exploration of American imperialism and the alternative perspectives on the Vietnam War, the series fails to evoke the philosophical or emotional engagement such a subject warrants.

It concludes as a forgettable viewing experience that neither offends nor impresses—essentially, it is as unaffecting as television can get.

Robert Downey Jr.