The Sympathizer TV Review

Director Park Chan-wook and producer/star Robert Downey Jr deliver a brilliant satire that defies genre conventions.

The Sympathizer

Plot: Based on Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Sympathizer is an espionage thriller and cross-culture satire about the struggles of a half-French, half-Vietnamese communist spy during the final days of the Vietnam War and his new life as a refugee in Los Angeles, where he learns that his spying days aren’t over. 

Review: The initial teaser released in 2023 showed that The Sympathizer would be something special. Featuring writing and direction from Park Chan-wook alongside writer Don McKellar and featuring Oscar winner Robert Downey Jr in five distinct roles, The Sympathizer is not only an adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel but a masterpiece of visual storytelling. A satirical blend of dark humor and visceral drama, The Sympathizer is unlike anything in recent memory. A startling perspective on the experience of the Vietnam War from the perspective of an unreliable narrator, this series spans years and genres to deliver a story that will have you glued to every single scene. With an impressive lead role from Hoa Xuande and recognizable actors including Sandra Oh, David Duchovny, John Cho, and more, this is a shocking story that embraces the divided nature of the warring factions of Vietnam alongside the equally divisive legacy of America’s connection to the brutal war that split the nation. The Sympathizer is really damn good.

Set in the 1970s, The Sympathizer centers on a nameless character known as Captain (Hoa Xuande). Shunned as a half-breed due to his Vietnamese mother and French father, Captain tells the story while imprisoned by the Communist government in his homeland. Chronicling his life story, Captain goes back to the days when he worked for the Secret Police while serving as a mole for the Communist resistance. Living a dual life, Captain must hide his true allegiances even as he begins to embrace the Western ideals taught to him by CIA agent Claude (Robert Downey Jr). When he and his boss, The General (Toan Le), his best friend Bon (Fred Nguyen Khan), and their families flee to the United States, Captain continues to work for the resistance via his close friend Man (Duy Nguyễn). In the United States, Captain must weave through the intolerance of Americans and those who want to use his skills to further their own cause. This includes Professor Hammer (Robert Downey Jr, again), a teacher of Asian Studies at Occidental College, Congressman Goodwin (Robert Downey Jr, a third time), a Vietnam Veteran, as well as Hollywood director Nico Damianos (RDJ, a fourth time) who wants to make an epic movie about the war. Each character represents a different perspective on the American involvement with Vietnam and further complicates Captain’s mission.

Over the seven episodes of The Sympathizer, the story shifts between Captain’s retelling of the events and his solitary confinement in the present day. Each time he reveals details about his past, Captain’s story shifts slightly, making him an unreliable narrator. Hoa Xuande (Cowboy Bebop) does an admirable job as he shifts between fluent Vietnamese and flawless English, another element of the dual lives of the Captain. Xuande commands the screen in an emotional rollercoaster of a role that has him carrying the ghosts of those whose lives he has personally taken and which haunt him through the series. In virtually every scene, Xuande is an amazingly talented actor who holds his own through his double and sometimes triple-crosses that consistently keep him close to being exposed for the spy he is. The weight of this is tangible as his character’s blue eyes can barely hide the torrent of emotions he must keep bottled up. It is an exceptional performance that shows a range as Captain interacts with targets, friends, and romantic partners, including Sophia Mori (Sandra Oh), the Japanese-American employee of Professor Hammer. Without divulging the twists and direction the story takes Captain, know that Xuande is capable of handling every obstacle placed in Captain’s path.

The Sympathizer review

As much as I was impressed by Hoa Xuande, The Sympathizer is another impressive showcase for Robert Downey Jr. On the heels of his Oscar win for Oppenheimer, Downey transforms into four completely unique characters who appear in varying capacities throughout the series. While the effeminate Professor Hammer may be the broadest of his roles in the series and Congressman Goodwin a veiled blend of the late John McCain mixed with a little Nixon, Downey’s other two roles wowed me. As Claude, Captain’s surrogate father figure and mentor, Downey dons a curly red hairstyle as he portrays the CIA agent as calculating as much as he is sympathetic to his Vietnamese colleagues. He is an intriguing character as he clearly has a bond with Captain, but one that does not supersede his allegiance to the United States. His other major role as film director, Nico Damianos, required the least amount of prosthetics but also required Downey to draw on his experiences on film sets and left me wondering if he drew inspiration from any real-life filmmakers to play this director. None of Robert Downey Jr’s characters are named in the novel, making his largely improvised performances even more engrossing to watch.

While the acting talent is a major plus for The Sympathizer, the creative talent behind the camera is equally impressive. Oldboy and Decision To Leave director Park Chan-wook co-wrote every episode of The Sympathizer along with series co-creator Don McKellar along with a team that includes Naomi Iizuka, Mark Richard, Maegan Houang, and Anchuli Felicia King. Park Chan-wook directed the series’ first three episodes, The Constant Gardener helmer Fernando Meirelles directed the fourth episode, and Marc Munden on the final three. Park Chan-wook’s unique style blends dark comedy and satire with disturbing images ranging from war atrocities and violence to horror movies that will stick with you for a long time. Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography is consistently stunning throughout the entire series, as is the fantastic score and soundtrack populated by recognizable songs from the 1970s. With a great producing team that includes Susan Downey and Roberty Downey Jr, novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, and more, this series is incredible to watch.

The Sympathizer is not what I expected based on the trailers, but it still exceeded my expectations. It is almost impossible to find fault with Robert Downey Jr’s career choices since ending his run in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Sympathizer is an example of a powerful story that needed the right talent to bring it to the screen. With an impeccable global cast, inspired direction, and writing from Park Chan-wook and Don McKellar, there is very little to complain about in The Sympathizer besides being over too soon. While I enjoyed it as a binge-watch, keeping the narrative flowing over the entire series, I expect it to build a different momentum for those tuning in weekly. Knowing that author Viet Thanh Nguyen has written a novel that continues the story, I hope The Sympathizer finds a large enough audience to bring this cast and crew back for another season.

The Sympathizer premieres on April 14th on HBO.

The Sympathizer




About the Author

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Alex Maidy has been a editor, columnist, and critic since 2012. A Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic and a member of Chicago Indie Critics, Alex has been's primary TV critic and ran columns including Top Ten and The UnPopular Opinion. When not riling up fans with his hot takes, Alex is an avid reader and aspiring novelist.