‘The Sympathizer’ Opens a Counteroffensive on Vietnam War Movies

HBO has long defined itself in contrast to mainstream television — “It’s not TV,” as the slogan goes — but in many ways its history is one of revising and responding to the movies. “The Sopranos” updated the mafia movie (and its characters quoted, and were influenced by, films like “The Godfather”). “Game of Thrones” dirtied up the high-fantasy genre; “Deadwood” the Western; “Watchmen” the superhero story.

But the network has never given us its longform version of, or rebuttal to, one Hollywood staple: the Vietnam War movie (unless one counts the alternative history aspects of “Watchmen”). Until now, with “The Sympathizer,” Park Chan-wook’s kinetic and darkly hilarious adaptation (with the co-showrunner Don McKellar) of the novel by the Vietnamese American author Viet Thanh Nguyen.

The seven-episode series is many things. It’s an exploration of dual identity: The protagonist, known only as the Captain (Hoa Xuande), is a half-French, half-Vietnamese communist double agent planted as an aide to the General (Toan Le), a leader of the South Vietnamese secret police. It’s a spy thriller, a satire of colonialism and its many faces — many of them Robert Downey Jr.’s — and an exploration of the complications of love and memory.

But it’s also an intense dialogue and argument with the movies. It is simultaneously its own Vietnam War movie, bold, inventive and sometimes bloody, as well as a pointed, detailed work of movie criticism.

In “The Sympathizer,” which began airing in April, the movies are a continuation of war by other means. Its fixation on film begins early. Retelling his story in a postwar re-education camp — the framing device for the series — the Captain recalls watching the vicious interrogation of a communist agent on the stage of a movie theater, where the marquee sign for “Emmanuelle” is coming down, and the one for Charles Bronson’s “Death Wish” is hoisted into place. Even in Hollywood’s dream vision, beauty gives way to an American pointing an oversized gun.

“Hollywood” is a metonym for America in “The Sympathizer”; it is the country’s front door, its export and its weapon. The Captain’s C.I.A. contact, Claude (Downey), lectures his “protégé” (who he is unaware is a communist) about American pop culture, expounding to him about the Isley Brothers and the Herbie Hancock score for “Death Wish.” Later, Claude tells him about the C.I.A.’s interest in keeping tabs on film directors: “As long as we can keep them within the nebulous bounds of humanism but with no actionable political ideology, they’re completely harmless.”

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