The Sympathizer Is a Spy Thriller of Rare Sophistication

While Nguyen is the author of the story upon which this series is based, Park Chan-wook is without a doubt this series’ author. Every moment of every episode—in particular, the first three, which he directed himself—appears handcrafted with layers of visual meaning, some grim, some ecstatic. When you see the spinning dial of a rotary phone graphic-match into a spinning car tire, or a political prisoner interrogated on the empty stage of a cinema with the projector blasting naked light on her face as the Captain looks on, or two characters talking espionage strategy while a fight scene straight out of Blake Edwards transpires in the background, you might be tempted to describe what Park is doing as “showy.” But the overall effect is a series that feels alive, frame by frame. If the Captain is too cool, his show is suffused with a kind of dark zaniness that allows us to sense, scene-by-scene, the high-wire he walks. Every step could be a pratfall or a land mine, a bit or a disaster.

I’ve saved mention of what is Park’s perhaps most ostentatious stylistic choice for last. If you’ve seen any publicity material for this show, you will have seen an overload of Robert Downey Jr.—who plays five separate roles across the seven episodes of this miniseries. Downey is the perfect actor to undertake such an act: Wily and oily, ingratiating and grotesque, he is able to transform five different ways while retaining an essence of himself in each role. Despite the quality of his performance, his casting is essentially a rueful structural joke. It’s not just that Downey plays so many different characters; he plays essentially every major white character in the series, including the Captain’s CIA contact in Vietnam, the college professor who sponsors him, and the filmmaker who offers him a job. Some of these characters mentor the Captain, and some of them grow to love him, in a way, but they all exploit him. American imperialism is brutishly powerful, whether its institutional arm is the U.S. government, the academy, or Hollywood, but it is not at all subtle. In each of its forms, imperialism bears the same face.

The Sympathizer can occasionally be confusing at a plot level, and, to its credit, it’s uninterested in hand-holding the viewer. But, between a plot that’s both labyrinthine and free associative, a structure that’s picaresque in its jumping from place to place, and a protagonist who’s always a bit of a mystery, the show risks a kind of coldness. There are moments of extraordinary emotional resonance alongside moments of sterility, even a few where the piling of meta-textual joke on top of meta-textual joke gets to be too much. But, then again, whenever Park is behind the camera, there’s a vibrancy and an intelligence at work in each visual and sonic choice that make the series constantly watchable. There’s a confidence and a care with this show that feel refreshing. Imagine being surprised at what a shot in a television series looks like; imagine becoming enamored with how a show told its story, not just the story itself; imagine falling for a style. The Sympathizer moves and shakes its way through seven circles of American imperial ruin, swaggering into oblivion.

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