The Sympathizer review: top-rank TV and a ruthless deconstruction of American imperialism

Television: Adaptation of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel focuses on the Vietnamese caught in the Cold War clash between the United States and Soviet Union

Before strapping on his red-and-gold visor and shooting of the stratosphere as Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr lived his career much like he lived his colourful personal life. He veered all over the place, from Richard Attenborough-directed biopics to romcoms via an unlikely ongoing role in workplace dramedy Ally McBeal. Having finally left the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he’s carried on where he left off, swerving from the chilling Doctor Dolittle to the slightly less chilling Oppenheimer and now arriving at the midnight black comedy of post-Vietnam satire, The Sympathizer (Sky Atlantic, 9pm).

It’s important at the outset to understand that the new limited series from Oldboy director Park Chan-wook isn’t another meditation on the Great American tragedy of Vietnam. This is not an Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket for Generation Binge.

The adaptation of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel instead focuses on the Vietnamese caught in the Cold War clash of empires between the United States and the Soviet Union. It opens in a Marxist re-education prison following the fall of Saigon. Here, protagonist The Captain (Hoa Xuande) is forced to list his crimes – including the fact he now “thinks in English”.

He claims he is an innocent man who worked diligently as a double-agent for the Communists. From here, The Sympathizer flashes back to the final months of South Vietnam, where the Captain is a functionary in the service of Saigon nabob The General (Toan Le) and running counter-intelligence operations for the regime. He’s also working for the Viet Cong – though, such is the chaos, he occasionally seems confused as to where his loyalties ultimately lie.

Enter Downey Jr as the Captain’s Gene Hackman-esque CIA mentor, Claude. He has great fun as a grizzly American abroad. But for the Oscar-winning actor, the good times are just beginning. Across the rest of the series, he plays every white American The Captain encounters when sent to spy in the US. Characters Downey Jr inhabits include an idiot academic and a Francis Ford Coppola-eque auteur, shooting a film clearly modelled on Apocalypse Now.

The Sympathizer came and went in the United States in April without creating much fuss – despite Downey Jr winning his Oscar just a few weeks previously. You can see why – this is top-rank TV and a ruthless deconstruction of American imperialism. But it is also quite lofty. It’s far more Catch-22 than Platoon, and the whimsy with which it explores a deathly serious story makes for a steep learning curve. Stay with it, though. Park Chan-wook has delivered a blitzing deconstruction of imperialism, and its corrosive effect on conquered and conqueror alike.

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