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HBO’s The Sympathizer brings infinite Robert Downeys Jr. to the Vietnam War

He’s the bad guy(s), obviously

Joshua Rivera (he/him) is an entertainment and culture journalist specializing in film, TV, and video game criticism, the latest stop in a decade-plus career as a critic.

Spy stories have all the ingredients necessary for excellent television: There’s tension, double-crossing, and the opportunity for lots and lots of wigs. In The Sympathizer, most of them are worn by Robert Downey, Jr.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer looks like our next big spy obsession. It’s a landmark adaptation of an acclaimed Vietnamese work, and it marks Park Chan-wook’s return to television five years after his excellent 2018 AMC miniseries The Little Drummer Girl. (And a year after releasing one of 2022’s best films, Decision to Leave.)

Taking a cue from its dizzying source material — which gleefully hops from genre to genre with a dizzyingly recursive narrative about an anonymous North Vietnamese spy embedded in the South Vietnamese army, who expatriates to the United States for, among other things, a farcical film production — the trailer for The Sympathizer is wonderfully confounding.

Starring Hoa Xuande as the protagonist (dubbed “The Captain”), the trailer gives us a glimpse of The Captain’s Catch-22-esque journey in espionage, where he seems to encounter multiple characters, all played by Robert Downey, Jr. circa the Vietnam War.

From the footage shown, The Sympathizer appears to be both a worthy adaptation of a rich novel and another exhibition for Park Chan-wook’s formidable spy-thriller chops.

The Sympathizer premieres live on HBO and on Max streaming in 2024.

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