The Sympathizer's Premiere Is Deliberately Ridiculous (2024)



Don’t let the muddled tone and much-advertised presence of Robert Downey Jr. fool you – The Sympathizer is a serious drama that is pulling no punches.

The surface-level appeal of The Sympathizer is Robert Downey Jr., making his limited series debut while slathered in makeup and a hairpiece that makes him look like a sunbed salesman. But it’s a trick. Episode 1, “Death Wish”, features Downey Jr. quite a bit, but it ends with a massacre and sneaks plentiful scenes of torture in for good measure.

And that’s the point. The Sympathizer is about The Fall of Saigon, the event that marked the end of the Vietnam War – or the American War, as it’s known in Vietnam – and the demolition of the South Vietnamese state. It’s prestige TV about one of the bloodiest and most needless conflicts in world history.

A marquee star gets you in the door. The rest keeps you from leaving.

The Fall of Saigon and Operation Frequent Wind

Based on Viet Thanh Nguyen’s award-winning novel, the premiere episode is largely an introduction to the plight of the Captain (Hoa Xuande), a Viet Cong double agent embedded in the South Vietnamese Army in 1975 (and potentially based on a real spy). A muddle of contradictions, the Captain is half Vietnamese, half French, studied in the U.S., and speaks perfect English. He doesn’t fit anywhere and is cursed to see both sides of every issue.

The Captain’s superiors, the General (Toan Le) and CIA agent Claude (Downey Jr.), have no idea he’s a spy. At the time, the U.S. was aiding the South Vietnamese, but the American public was staunchly against the war. When the cost of American lives became too great to rationalize, the Americans pulled out of Vietnam and Saigon fell to the North.

As something of a consolation effort for leaving them to it, the U.S. backed an evacuation mission named Operation Frequent Wind, which spirited more than 7000 South Vietnamese citizens out of Saigon. In this story, the Captain is one of them, still – as a communist sympathizer – harboring loyalty to the Viet Cong.

The Sympathizer Is Deliberately Ridiculous

The Sympathizer's Premiere Is Deliberately Ridiculous (1)

The Sympathizer Episode 1

But it takes the full hour to get to this point. Most of “Death Wish” is designed to provide context by laying out the political state of South Vietnam and the Captain’s complex position in the hierarchy, forcing him into some tough spots to emphasize the difficulty of his predicament.

How The Sympathizer depicts these tough spots is telling. A big one is the capture and interrogation (read: torture) of a communist sympathizer who apparently swallowed a role of microfilm. The Captain has to play along to maintain his cover. But the show laces the sequence with dark comedy and meta references to the functions of film in general (the initial interrogation takes place in a movie theater where the titular Death Wish is playing; the woman is spotlit on stage.)

This juxtaposition gives The Sympathizer an eerie quality. Downey’s Claude is the same. The CIA man – one of several antagonists the Iron Man star will play throughout the series – looks ridiculous. We’re supposed, I think, to laugh at him, at the absurdity of a treasured American actor playing this arch role in a serious drama. His cartoonish demeanor doesn’t sit well with the horrors he’s privy to. The awkwardness is intentional.

The Curse Of Seeing Both Sides

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The Sympathizer Episode 1

The microfilm pertains to a staff list of the South’s Secret Police that the Captain had stolen a couple of days earlier from a cabinet in the General’s office. The Captain lives with the General and teaches his daughter English, so he’s uncomfortably close to the top of the South Vietnamese regime. If he’d waited, he’d have been given the list anyway, since the General wants him to choose which of the men gets to occupy coveted spots aboard the C-130 evacuation plane during Operation Frequent Wind.

Another predicament. If the Captain takes the best men, he won’t be leaving anyone behind who’s worth a damn. But if he takes the worst men, the General will be suspicious. So, he picks the worst men who appear to be the best. He also uses his personal relationship with the general to request seats for his friend Bon (Fred Nguyen Khan) and Bon’s family.

Bon is an interesting figure in the Captain’s personal story since he hates the Viet Cong but the Captain’s fondness for him is very genuine. Maybe seeing both sides of every issue really is a curse.

The Captain Gets His Real Orders

The Sympathizer's Premiere Is Deliberately Ridiculous (3)

The Sympathizer Episode 1

The Captain has a fanciful idea of staying behind during the evacuation and bidding the General farewell. But his orders from the North – passed down to him by a doctor named Man (Duy Nguy?n) – is to accompany the General abroad and keep an eye on him.

That’s your setup for the rest of the season – the Captain in a South Vietnamese refugee community, trying to keep his double-agent status a secret while feeding information back to the Viet Cong.

To make the stakes clear, the Viet Cong bomb the escapees during Operation Frequent Wind in a flurry of questionable CGI explosions. Bon’s wife and child are killed in the hellfire, while the Captain helps Bon and the General to escape.

As if he didn’t have a reason to keep his true nature a secret before, he certainly does now.

The Sympathizer's Premiere Is Deliberately Ridiculous (4)

Article by Jonathon Wilson

Jonathon is one of the co-founders of Ready Steady Cut and has been an instrumental part of the team since its inception in 2017. Jonathon has remained involved in all aspects of the site’s operation, mainly dedicated to its content output, remaining one of its primary Entertainment writers while also functioning as our dedicated Commissioning Editor, publishing over 6,500 articles.

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The Sympathizer's Premiere Is Deliberately Ridiculous (2024)


Is The Sympathizer pro or anti communist? ›

While he still considers himself a communist and revolutionary, he acknowledges his friendships with those who are supposedly his enemy and he understands all soldiers as honorably fighting for their home.

What is the first paragraph of The Sympathizer? ›

I am a man of two faces, and also a man of two minds, the narrator-protagonist of Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer says in the novel's opening paragraph. “I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.”

Why did Viet Thanh Nguyen write The Sympathizer? ›

I grew up reading books and watching movies about America's Vietnam War, but among all of these, precious little was said about the Vietnamese, who were depicted as stereotypes and foils to American heroes and played by bit actors. This was one motivation for me to write this novel, but far from the only one.

What is the meaning of the nothing in The Sympathizer? ›

In the book, his name is never revealed, and his very identity is being torn apart. The "nothing" here refers to the opposite of collectivism, which is individualism, and that is the answer to the question what is more precious than freedom and independence.

Is The Sympathizer anti American? ›

But Nguyen and Park make clear that The Sympathizer is neither pro-North Vietnam nor anti-America. Some of the novel's searing condemnations are aimed at the Vietnamese government, which led to roadblocks in getting the book published in the country, Nguyen says.

What is the main idea of The Sympathizer? ›

Brief summary

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen is a captivating novel that follows a communist spy embedded in the South Vietnamese army. It offers a unique perspective on the Vietnam War and explores themes of identity, loyalty, and betrayal.

Why did The Sympathizer win a Pulitzer? ›

Winning Work

In dialogue with but diametrically opposed to the narratives of the Vietnam War that have preceded it, this novel offers an important and unfamiliar new perspective on the war: that of a conflicted communist sympathizer.

Who is The Sympathizer based on? ›

Nguyen was partially inspired by North Vietnamese spy Pham Xuan An. In 2016, Nguyen discussed his inspiration for The Sympathizer with NPR, saying he made a spy novel because he liked the genre and thought it would make the story's political themes more entertaining for readers.

Is The Sympathizer Based on a true story? ›

The Sympathizer is a not a true story. Viet Thanh Nguyen won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016 for The Sympathizer. The novel also won the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

Who won the Pulitzer Prize for The Sympathizer? ›

Viet Thanh Nguyen's novel, The Sympathizer , received the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction yesterday. A first novel that deals with a Vietnamese communist sympathizer who moves to California in 1975, the book received sterling reviews, including one on The VVA Veteran 's Books in Review II page by David Willson.

Who is Lana in The Sympathizer? ›

Vy Le as Lana

Vy Le plays Lana, the rebellious daughter of the General who adapts quickly to American pop culture in a way that is unnerving for her father. “The Sympathizer” also marks Vy Le's acting debut.

Is The Sympathizer communist? ›

The main character of The Sympathizer, an undercover communist spy sent in mission in the West only known as 'The Captain', embodies perfectly the clash of ideologies and narratives that tore apart Vietnam and its people.

What is the historical context of the sympathizer? ›

The Sympathizer begins during the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975 and follows the lives of Vietnamese refugees, dispersed throughout the United States, after they fled from the North Vietnamese Army's takeover of South Vietnam and the subsequent reunification of Vietnam under Communist rule.

How many chapters are in the sympathizer? ›

Viet Thanh Nguyen's novel The Sympathizer (2015) is 384 pages long. It is composed of 23 chapters, and around 116,600 words.

Who are the haters of communism? ›

Anti-communist anarchists include anarcho-primitivists and other green anarchists, who critique communism for its need of industrialisation and its perceived authoritarianism.

Who banned the Communist Party? ›

§§ 841–844) is an American law signed by President Dwight Eisenhower on August 24, 1954, that outlaws the Communist Party of the United States and criminalizes membership in or support for the party or "Communist-action" organizations and defines evidence to be considered by a jury in determining participation in the ...

What did anti communist fear? ›

Political scientist and former member of the Communist Party USA Murray B. Levin wrote that the Red Scare was "a nationwide anti-radical hysteria provoked by a mounting fear and anxiety that a Bolshevik revolution in America was imminent—a revolution that would change Church, home, marriage, civility, and the American ...

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